This post has been rolling around in my head and in an email interchange with the Great FranIAm, and I'm finally going to post it. It was brought to mind by Fran's use of a Norman Rockwell classic,
when she was talking about religious freedom and the ridiculous "I'm a Mormon" Mittens Romney speech.
First off, I want to say I'm not ragging Fran for her use of this artwork. It's just the whole idea of Rockwell and the way he painted America. Whenever I see Rockwell's work, I just automatically think about racism. Why, you ask? Let me explain.
Rockwell is an American classic, of course -- but what I hate about his paintings is that they're so freakin' white-bread middle America. That in itself is not the bad thing -- I mean, the majority of Americans are white/anglo people, including my partner and most of my friends. I loves the blondes and blue-eyeds of this nation! (did that sound like an idiot politician speaking or what?!)
The thing that bothers me about Rockwell and his imagery is this: When I think about racism in this country, it is always with the wistful belief that it will never go away. It'll still be with us, long after the KKK and other hate groups are gone -- because there will ALWAYS be a quiet, insidious racism that is evoked (at least for me) by things like Rockwellian imagery. He painted an America in which white people were these simple, folksy, Lake Woebegone-like people who think themselves good christians and good people. (I also love Garrison Keillor, so don't be hatin' on me; it's just an example.) The people in Rockwell gather with their friends, at home or at the park, down at the fishing hole, etc -- and it has always seemed to me that at least in some people's minds, America is -- or should be -- like a Rockwell painting, in which these small-town communities of nice white boys and girls playing and watching fireworks on the 4th of July, and old white veterans and grandparents watching parades down Main Street, and old white guys sitting on the porch of the country store playing checkers.
When you think about this version of America -- which many people long for, whether it was ever even real or not--that version of America doesn't have any people of color in it.
Just think about it -- the whole 1950s-early 60s "good old days" era of Leave it to Beaver America (which was never even real, in my opinion, but nonetheless is still perceived as literally real even today) is completely WHITE. Can you imagine those old white men on the porch playing checkers, and a black stranger comes up onto the porch, and even though he's the same age, probably has a lot of the same experiences and same hopes and dreams as the white guys -- when this black stranger comes up on the porch, can you see those old guys pulling out a chair for him to sit in and talking to him? No way. But if it was a white guy -- a guy who looked just like them -- suddenly, things would change -- their reaction would change -- you know it would! They would say "howdy" or whatever, ask him if he's new in town, invite him to join them.
I realize this example uses older people, who (let me just generalize here) tend to be a bit more prejudiced, and of course younger people are different, right? Well, I don't think so. I see it all the time here in Central PA -- there are at least two or three race-related incidents per semester here at Penn State, a huge modern university where kids from all over come to broaden their education and their minds. Yet every damned semester, we have someone shouting racial epithets from dorm windows at people, or someone finds a Facebook page with racist stuff on it, or there's an altercation downtown between some blacks and some whites. These kids are no different at all than those old men playing checkers, old people whose memories go back to the time before integration -- when it was George Wallace screaming "Segregation now, segregation forever!" That happened in 1963, before I was born, and yet I remember growing up and hearing those words over and over when Wallace was trying to run for office later.
For some reason (maybe it's just naivete), I think the KKK and other hate groups will eventually die out, but I think we'll always have this kind of under-the-surface racism, the kind that a lot of white people don't even know they feel until push comes to shove. You get a Hurricane Katrina, and a whole swath of Americans just turn their backs and say things like, "well, they should've evacuated!" Or a black family will move into a previously all-white community and get "The Look" that we minorities know all too well: that "what are YOU doing here?" look. Or maybe the subject of incarceration and sentencing inequities will up in a converstaion-- and all of a sudden, even good people who never thought they had anything against African-Americans suddenly feel a strange twinge when they think about it. They think back to all those episodes of "Cops" and think, "well, those black people ARE always in trouble!"
I realize race is a hot-button issue, and that I might have overgeneralized or offended with this post. If so, I'm sorry. I just wanted to discuss the issue with all of you, hear what you have to say. So let me hear from you.