Jay Jamison of the Journal-Courier writes that everyone should “shut up about race.” But I won’t.
I will keep talking about race because Jacksonville’s history is permeated by race. While slavery dominated the South, Jacksonville had a significant free black population in a section of the city called Africa, south of College Avenue. Before the Civil War, abolitionists, many at Illinois College, clashed with defenders of slavery. But race as a defining element of social life in Jacksonville was not only an issue of the 19th century. Well into the 1960s, black people in Jacksonville were openly discriminated against in downtown stores. Racism is a living memory for many black and white residents of Jacksonville.
I will keep talking about race because we keep learning more about how racism in the United States operated. James Loewen’s eye-opening book, Sundown Towns, describes how small towns all across America kept African Americans out by passing laws that non-whites had to leave by sundown. These communities remained segregated into and past the 1960s. In Illinois, according to the 2000 census, Scott County and Mason County still had no black households, and Stark County had one.
I will keep talking about race because my students cannot understand American history without knowing the role played by racism. Official and unofficial discrimination against virtually every ethnic and religious group who were not Anglo-Saxon Protestants determined social and economic life in America for most of our history.
I will keep talking about race because my life is a product of racism. My father came to the U.S. at 18 because he had to flee his home in Vienna or be killed by the Nazis. He found a haven in America and within a few years was back in Europe wearing a U.S. Army uniform.
Thousands of other German and Austrian Jews, including my grandparents, were denied entry by anti-Semitic immigration laws and practices of the U.S. government. After I was born in 1948, anti-Semitism still determined where Jews could live, what colleges we could attend, what organizations we could join, and where we could work. I have seen anti-Semitism gradually dissipate in America, but not disappear. Within the past few years, I heard a speaker talk about being “Jewed” at a public gathering here in town.
I will keep talking about race because my brother, who lives in eastern Pennsylvania, tells me that racial slurs are common parlance among white people he meets. Racism is still widespread in America. A survey conducted this year by the University of Washington found that more than half of whites agreed with the statement: “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”
I will keep talking about race because a candidate for Senate in Kentucky has said that he thinks it is wrong that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes racial discrimination by private businesses illegal. Unless one agrees with Rand Paul, it is important to defend the civil rights won in that hard fight against racism in the 1960s.
I will keep talking about race because that is what prevents and eliminates racism. If young people in America are less racist than the older generations, it is because they have heard open and truthful talk about race in schools, in film, in the media. They have learned that racist stereotypes are lies, that discrimination is illegal, and that racism must be fought not only in bad foreign places, but here at home.
It is a remarkable day when a white man tells our black attorney general, Eric Holder, as well as black and white “scholars, activists and others” to shut up about race. It is a remarkable argument to blame racism on the words of those people who have been and still are discriminated against. It is remarkably ironic to say that the targets of racism are obsessed with race.
Those of us who have felt racism are not obsessed with race. But we know that pretending racism will go away by itself is a privilege of those who have never felt its sting.
And we won’t shut up.
Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007).