Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Lot to 'Overcome'

AND YOU THINK YOUR JOB SUCKS? Imagine working in a meat-packing plant in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Health care there meant you came home with all ten fingers and toes in tact. It was also the origin of George Jefferson's favorite term of endearment for his neighbors in both Queens and Manhattan.

I had initially planned on writing this on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s actual birthday, January 15th. Then, I intended it to be on the national holiday on Monday. As you can see, it's a bit late. Part of it has to do with another story that came up involving King, which I'll write about later. But, better late than never, here it is.

The fact that the United States has an African-American President initially led some people to invent a word: "post-racial". Meaning, with Obama's election, this country has become post-racial, beyond race. Uh, not quite. There's the new book that quotes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, Nev.] as saying that America was ready for a President like Barack Obama who is black but "light-skinned" and speaks "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." If you didn't like that one, we have disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich [D] saying in an interview that he was "blacker than Obama" -- a comment that Blago later called "stupid, stupid, stupid."

I'm guessing he considered it stupid because there was a 'live' microphone, not because he thought what he said was wrong. So, we're hardly post-racial. Still, it is worth noting how far we have indeed come. It was not that very long ago, historically speaking, that this country was quite a different place when it came to racial issues. Indeed, I'm old enough to remember the outcry that resulted in the mere idea of giving King his own holiday. In honor of that progress, here is a look at some facts about racism and ethnic intolerance. Some trivial, some serious as hell.

First, we have the origins of the word "Honky". Growing up myself, my first introduction to the word was on Good Times...or maybe it was The Jeffersons. No, it must've been All in the Family. Well, anyway, some 35 years later, I was no closer to discovering its origins in 2010 until the other day. It seems the word probably originated in Chicago. It seems to come from the word "bohunk," used to describe Bohemians, Hungarians and other Eastern European immigrants. African American workers in Chicago's South Side meat packing plants are believed to have referred to their white co-workers as "hunkies," which later became "honkies" to refer to all whites. Now you know.

Next, the way the media has portrayed race has changed dramatically. 102 years before we elected an African American to the White House, the Atlanta Constitution described in a 1906 article how a white girl suffered a fatal heart attack after dreaming that a "big negro" with a knife was trying to kill her. The Constitution seemed to blame the fictional black man, headlining the story: "Negro, Seen in Dream, Causes Death of Girl." And it wasn't just in the south, either. Check out an article from 1921 in the New York Times . The article reported that South Africa's black population, which outnumbered whites 5-to-1, was pushing for political power. Now, some would view that as democracy in action. The Times saw it differently with this headline: "Negroes a Problem in South Africa."

You needn't even go that far back. A mere 55 years ago, the Chicago Tribune covered the viewing - attended by about 40,000 proceeding past the casket - of lynching victim Emmet Till. The youngster's body had been returned from Mississippi to Chicago. In the article, the Tribune suggested that this key civil rights event might be a Marxist hoax. The article's third and fourth paragraphs described communists distributing "inflammatory literature" outside the church. The fifth and sixth paragraphs quoted a Mississippi sheriff who questioned whether the body was even Till's and said that "the whole thing looks like a deal made up by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People."

Of course, it was not just the print media by a long-shot. Hollywood's portrayal of racial and ethnic minorities are infamous by this point. That wholesome company, Disney, was perhaps one of the worst perpetrators. There's the 1946 feature film Song of the South [above] mercifully remains out of circulation because of the offense it would give to African Americans [not to mention whites, and anyone else whose life does not resemble an outtake from Gone With the Wind]. Then there's the 1933 cartoon short Three Little Pigs featured the big, bad wolf dressed as a Jewish peddler. Really, seriously. A Jewish peddler. 1933. Years later, and I do mean years after complaints, the cartoon was revised so that the wolf posed as a Fuller Brush salesman. No word yet on how many Fuller Brush men protested after that.

Then we have our government. Would you believe that 56 years ago there was actually a federal program called - officially, mind you - "Operation Wetback"?! It was conducted in 1954 to drive illegal immigrants from the American Southwest. Federal officials claimed that 1.3 million people were deported or compelled to flee. The name for the operation, by the way, came from Gen. Joseph "Jumpin' Joe" Swing, a former West Point classmate of then-President Dwight Eisenhower who headed the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Perhaps the strangest - just strange, outside of the fact that it was racist - was the Life magazine article [above] headlined "How to tell Japs from the Chinese", which came out shortly after Pearl Harbor. The Chinese, who were U.S. allies, found themselves mistaken for Japanese on American streets and treated rudely by angry Americans. So, to the rescue came Life , whose publisher Henry Luce was a major Sinophile. Life even provided useful annotated photos - presumably so that you could take them with you, should you encounter someone of Asian descent on the street. According to Life, the Chinese had "parchment yellow complexion." The Japanese had "earthy yellow complexion." The Chinese were "tall and slender." The Japanese were "short and squat." In their facial expressions, the Chinese "wear the rational calm of tolerant realists," while Japanese show the "humorless intensity of ruthless mystics." A person from China "never has rosy cheeks." A Japanese person has "sometimes rosy cheeks." The apparent message: if you are planning to randomly attack the first Asian you encounter, please beat the one with the rosy cheeks. Luce no doubt figured such advice would help us win the war.

Somehow, we won anyway.

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