From 1937 to 1949, while Joe Louis reigned as boxing’s heavyweight champion, he was known as the “Brown Bomber.” Many whites, taken with his outward humility and trying to show they weren’t intolerant, described him as a “credit to his race.” It was polite bigotry. As we’ve passed the annual observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and with it the annual introspection about civil-rights progression in America, it’s obvious we’ve come a long way — after all, we have elected a black president. But we still have some distance to travel.
As a white, I cringe when I hear from certain people who are clearly a debit to my race. Whatever possessed Sarah Palin, for instance, on MLKs birthday to go on Twitter and, after quoting from the “I Have a Dream” speech, implore President Barack Obama: “Mr. President, in honor of Martin Luther King and all who commit to ending any racial divide, no more playing the race card.”
What brought that on? It only could be Ms. Palin proudly playing the race card herself, and maintaining her following among those who live in fear and hatred. As far as we’ve come, the racial divide still exists and she is always delighted to exploit it.
Mr. Obama, in a remarkable interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick, was stating the obvious by saying, “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black president.” Then, in his often professorial way, he went on: “Now the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black president.”
It’s hard to argue with that, and it shows, even with all the progress, that as a nation we are still very much hung up over race, and still dealing with intense prejudice. Recently, Glenn Beck decided, for whatever reason, to declare that he was feeling some remorse for his incendiary rhetoric of a few years past, when he was pulling in the ratings on Fox News: “I think I played a role unfortunately in helping tear the country apart.”
Golly, Glenn: Do you think so? How much introspection did it take for you to realize that gratuitously calling President Obama a “racist” who carries “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture” might be a tad divisive? I suppose Beck deserves a bit of credit for owning up, but one of his running buddies, Palin, is still at it, stirring up hatred for fun and profit.
How sad that there’s still plenty to stir up. Just look at the ugliness that followed an NFL playoff game. As we all certainly know, the Seattle Seahawks beat San Francisco after some last-second heroics by Seattle defensive back Richard Sherman. But then Sherman had the audacity to go on TV right afterward and instead of spouting the usual cliches, he ranted about how great he was and wildly trashed his opponent. The details are incidental. What does matter is the nature of the controversy that erupted in cyberspace. Quite a bit of the uproar was downright racist, plain and simple. The bigots were all atwitter. And there were lot of them, not focusing so much on whether Sherman’s comments were inappropriate or if they were bad sportsmanship, but declaring that Sherman’s behavior somehow confirmed their darkest prejudices and that they were free to talk about it without apology. Happily, a few people of good will were so appalled by the blatant bigotry in those comments that they spoke out about it. The whole thing might cause some to look past the usual grotesque hype of the Super Bowl to reflect on how far we haven’t come. If so, that would be a credit to their taste.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.