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The wheels of a dream

Joey Falco | Monday, February 5, 2007

Racism is certainly a strange bird: recognized by some, overlooked by others, even considered extinct by a few more. It is tempting, at times, to take a look around modern America and conclude that color blindness truly has become the norm.

After all, we have certainly come a long way from the period portrayed in PEMCo’s latest musical, the pre-World War I days of “Ragtime.” In an era when members of all races resorted to violence and overt racial slurs simply as a means of survival and self-preservation, it was easy for the United States to glance in the mirror and recognize the hypocritical duality of the so-called American dream.

Early in “Ragtime,” Coalhouse Walker, the show’s black protagonist, glances around at the promise of American democracy and proudly sings, “We’ll see justice, Sarah; we’ll see plenty of men who will stand up and give us our due. Oh, Sarah, it’s more than promises; Sarah, it must be true. A country that lets a man like me own a car, raise a child, build a life with you.” Of course, the dark side of 1906 America – racism, violence and the preservation of class stratification – quickly punctures the wheels of Coalhouse’s dream.

Today, however, we seem above that. The American enlightenment of the 1960s, led by prophet-philosophers like Martin Luther King Jr., opened the nation’s eyes to the tragic cruelty of a country that promises equality but gives nothing. Today, almost 40 years after Dr. King’s assassination, racism, some would say, is also dead.

After all, a conspicuously big deal has been made of the fact that African Americans currently hold the posts of secretary of state, Supreme Court justice, House majority whip and the chairmanships of the House Judiciary, Ways and Means, Homeland Security and Ethics Committees. Other races, as well, are strongly represented politically in such posts as attorney general, secretary of commerce and secretary of labor. The leading Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama, is the son of a Kenyan. One could also point to the fact that yesterday not only gave America its first black coach to appear in a Super Bowl, but its second as well. On top of that, there are individuals like Oprah Winfrey and BET founder Bob Johnson, both of whom are listed as billionaires by Forbes.

However, to steal a line from Hamlet, this nation doth protest too much, methinks.

If racism actually ceased to exist, very little would even be said about the unusual success of these nonwhite individuals. If racism were truly dead, former Virginia Sen. George Allen would never have faced public shame for calling an Indian man a “macaca.” If racism really died along with Dr. King, Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden would have had no reason to refer to Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” If racism was gone, the drunk Louisiana State fan sitting behind me at the Sugar Bowl would never have told me that Notre Dame was lucky not to have a n—– quarterback like them.

Even here at college, where students are supposedly taught to look beyond the confines of race, racism has made headlines lately. Two Southern universities – Clemson in South Carolina and Tarleton State in Texas – have erupted in a firestorm of racial tensions in the past few weeks because of photos posted online of white students attending Martin Luther King Day parties. At Tarleton State, students were shown celebrating the holiday by drinking malt liquor out of brown paper bags and eating fried chicken while dressed as gang members or Aunt Jemima. At Clemson, some students even wore blackface to their party.

Fortunately, these schools have had the issue of racism thrust into the open, and both are now actively engaged in black-white dialogues and discussion groups about the topic. At Notre Dame, however, the question of racism often remains unaddressed.

While no one has yet to file a formal complaint (most likely due to the overwhelming whiteness of the campus), race-based party themes pop up here all the time, too. “Ghetto Fabulous” parties, “Hampton-Compton” parties, and probably dozens more in which racial stereotypes are encouraged have certainly taken place in numerous dorms, apartments and houses in South Bend in recent years. I’ve been to many of them myself.

Sure, racial humor is a remarkably easy way to make people laugh – partly because in a diverse nation like America, everyone’s a little bit racist. The sight of white students wearing black face and dressing as Aunt Jemima, however, is a tragic play on an era of overt racial oppression that no American should use as an excuse to get drunk. You don’t see many “Holocaust” themed college parties, and while no event can possibly ever be compared to the systematic killings of that period, racism certainly can be considered America’s enduring, albeit less blatant, equivalent.

It’s about time we grow up a little, and a good start would be to make a conscious effort to think before we crack subtly racist jokes or throw overtly race-themed parties. Yes, it’s a lot different than engaging in the racial violence depicted in “Ragtime,” but America still has a long way to go toward becoming a truly fair and equal nation, and every little bit helps.

With far larger issues facing America in the very near future – global warming, poverty and terrorism – it is time to recognize the oneness of the American people for the sake of the greater good. To quote “Ragtime’s” Coalhouse Walker once more, “And say to those who blame us for the way we chose to fight, that sometimes there are battles which are more than black or white.”

Joey Falco is a senior American Studies major and Journalism, Ethics and Democracy minor. He encourages everyone to attend the forum on “Ragtime” and race in America at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday in Washington Hall.