Are we racists? You decide.
“Bill, I can’t believe you said the wrong side won the Civil War.
People are going to think you’re a racist…” warned a colleague
The same subject came up on our flight down to Johannesburg. On our
last trip, we were seated next to a pilot’s wife. She explained that
the NEW South Africa was being ruined by affirmative action, that
is…a kind of compensatory, racial discrimination-in-reverse. Her
white husband was being forced out of his job, she said, in order to
make room for black pilots who lacked sufficient training or
Even before we got on the South African Airways plane we noticed what
looked like the new South Africa at work. All the ground staff were
black. Friendly. Apparently competent. Efficient and courteous. This
was not NWA…in fact, it was much better than the frumpy, disagreeable
treatment we usually get from US based airlines, black or white.
Then, once we got on the plane, same thing…nice looking, professional
staff…all black. We began to wonder about the pilot.
Then, we saw him. A solid white man deep into his 50s. He looked like a
stiff-necked Boer…at least as we imagined them. But he looked like a
fellow who knew how to fly a plane. We gave an inward sigh of relief.
“No affirmative action pilot on this plane,” we thought to ourselves.
Of course, that’s the trouble with affirmative action; it undermines
its beneficiaries. You never know whether a pilot got his wings because
of who he is…or because of what he can do. And you feel guilty for
South Africa has many of the same obsessions with race as America. And
bigger potential problems.
But this little circumlocution is about your editor and his alleged
racism, not about South Africa. He pleads neither guilty nor not
In the early 1960s, the authorities desegregated the Anne Arundel
County schools. Your editor was 12 years old. He was there when three
little black girls showed up. After 300 years of being schooled
separately, Maryland decided to put black and white students together.
Sentiment out on the tobacco flats ran hotly against it. The tidewater
was George Wallace country. Of course, in the 7th grade, we were
unaware of the politics or history behind desegregation. But we had no
trouble picking up bad ideas from our elders.
On the first day the girls arrived, the boys felt they should make some
kind of remonstration. This took the form of pressing their backs to
the hallway walls as the girls walked by as if they were afraid they
would get cooties. To his everlasting regret, your editor joined them.
In a flash, however, even at 12 years old, a boy understands when he is
being a jerk. It was not that he is afraid of being labeled a ‘racist.’
As near as he can tell, being a racist could be a good thing. But if he
is lucky he has a deeper compass to guide him.
In the case of the little boy now writing this remembrance, he knew
that what he was doing wasn’t very nice. And he knew that if his mother
could see him she’d be ashamed of him. After a second, he pulled
himself together. So did the other boys. The clouds of desegregation
gathered at 9:AM. By 9:30 AM the storm had blown over. Boys and girls,
blacks and whites, lived happily together at Southern Jr. Sr. High
School ever after. Or at least until we left in 1966.
Human beings, like animals, feel an urge to separate themselves into
herds, tribes, groups, cliques, economy class and first class. That’s
just the way they are. They are a competitive species, always angling
and butting heads, trying to get an advantage. Why do they do it?
Even blubbery walruses come ashore and try to gouge each other with
their tusks…hoping it leads to a dominant position and a chance to
mate. Girls like winners; there is no getting around it. There must
have been plenty of tough times in the dark beginnings of man and pre-
man. Perhaps only the fastest, smartest, toughest males were able to
get the food…and the girls. Their genes survived. Those who had no
competitive drive may have died out. We don’t know.
But we know individuals compete. So do groups. They compete in
commerce. In sport. And in war. Most wars, as we mentioned yesterday,
are little more than violent sporting contests…with no more
significance than a game of football for mortal stakes. The ‘reasons’
for war are little more than claptrap.
In the War Between the States, both sides probably deserved to lose.
The South had its slaves. But the North had the South. The desire to
boss someone around seems irresistible. While the Southerners whipped
their field hands, Lincoln suspended the Constitution and began bossing
everyone around. Marylanders, who maintained a Swiss-like neutrality,
were rounded up and sent to prison camps. Irish immigrants…who were
little better off than the slaves…were rounded up in New York and
forced to fight against the yankee’s enemies. The Southerners, being
good shots, laid many of them in their graves.
But racism? They were probably all racists. Lincoln surely was. The
reason some were slave owners and others weren’t was based on
economics, not prejudice. The North had no cotton fields. In the stony
ground and primitive workshops of the North, slave labor didn’t pay. It
was cheaper to pay skilled workers slave wages than keep them in
chattel slavery. In Maryland at the time, slavery was disappearing
fast. Out in the tobacco fields, it was still a paying proposition, but
Baltimore’s factories were only a short distance away. In the little
village where you editor grew up, surrounded by tobacco fields, there
was nevertheless a railroad station…on the ‘underground railroad,’
this is. Slaves knew that if they could get to that big white house in
the village, they could get away. An abolitionist lived there.
Property that can run away so easily loses much of its property value.
Slavery was dying out everywhere…all over the world. Slavery was
unsuited to the industrial age. Within a decade of the end of the war,
it had been extinguished almost everywhere – without war.
Then, the war over, the southerners put on their sheets, nursed their
wounds and passed their Jim Crow laws. The North, having defeated the
most sacred principle of the American Revolution, continued on the road
for Markets and Money