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Can white America overcome its slaveholder mentality?

As much as I support the clamor for change gripping the country, I’m not optimistic. Do the young people populating protests understand the entrenched hatred they’re up against?

A man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat argues with Black Lives Matter protesters as they march through the Garfield Ridge neighborhood on the Southwest Side the afternoon of Thursday, June 4, 2020.
A man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat argues with Black Lives Matter protesters as they march through the Garfield Ridge neighborhood on the Southwest Side last week.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

It can be difficult to forgive those who wrong you. But it’s much harder to forgive those you’ve wronged.

That, in a nutshell, is the challenge facing America today regarding race. That explains why, having lost the Civil War, the slaveholder mentality is still not only popular but, recent protests notwithstanding, ascendant: many white people still can’t find it in their hearts to forgive black Americans.

The notion that white people are superior and besieged by the presence of lesser, darker races is on the upswing, having stupefied the United States sufficiently in 2016 that it elected an unfit fraud as president. Now...

“Excuse me?” you might be thinking about now. Did you say “forgive?” Whites need to forgive blacks?

Certainly. Flip open the dictionary:

for·give /fərˈɡiv/ verb. stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.

The “stop feeling angry or resentful” part doesn’t need explanation. Anger and resentment are the defining elements of white supremacy. The slavers professed to be burdened by their charges, saddled with their care and discipline.

Trumpism is only that attitude’s latest manifestation. Setting down their whips to clutch at themselves and complain about being the true victims.

OK ... you may be thinking ... point taken. But what about that second half? “...for an offense, flaw, or mistake.” What have black people done?

That’s easy. They’re here. They exist. Their wrong is to look different than white America and be the occasion for its most monstrous acts. Look at how much of our history is driven by trying to push black people out of sight. Separate parts of towns. Ghettos. Housing projects. Black neighbors couldn’t even walk on the sidewalk, not without stepping off when a white person passed. Not just in the 19th century. In my lifetime, some whites didn’t want a black person sitting at the same lunch counter at Woolworth’s, quietly nibbling a grilled cheese sandwich. It was unbearable.

That’s why, as much as I support the clamor for change gripping the country, I’m not optimistic. I wonder whether the young people driving this extraordinary outcry really know what they’re up against. When federal courts ordered integrated municipal pools, towns in the deep South filled swimming pools with dirt rather than share. They’d rather endure long muggy Mississippi July afternoons with no relief than face the horror of black and white kids splashing together.

White bigots always point toward whatever crime they can find as an excuse. But the effrontery that rankles them is blacks insisting on equal treatment.

What most infuriated whites, historically, wasn’t black misbehavior but black success. Any attempt at public dignity was a theft of the exclusive property of whites. On April 3, 1919, a returning vet, William Lee, was beaten to death by a white mob near Blakely, Georgia, because he was still wearing his Army uniform after being discharged. Even after he explained he had no other clothes.

That wasn’t a unique horror, but common practice; 20 black soldiers were lynched for the crime of having served their country.

But it was the brutal 1918 lynching of Mary Turner that prompted the government to get involved. Turner, eight months pregnant, was burned alive — another frequent occurrence — in Valdosta, Georgia, her fetus ripped from her womb.

This finally forced the federal government to act — not against the murderers, though. Against W.E.B. DuBois, whose newspaper, Crisis, chronicled lynchings in the South. DuBois was warned about using the mails to disseminate descriptions of lynchings whose mere outlines were not only obscene, the feds argued, but fed German propaganda.

I do not mention this grim history to be negative, or to suggest that protests are in vain, But as a reminder that the gnarled root we are trying to yank out is old, and deep, and will not yield quickly or easily. At least it hasn’t yet. Haters pretend this is all in the hazy past. But it’s as current as Friday, when Sen. Rand Paul blocked an anti-lynching bill. Lynching still isn’t a federal crime.

Every step forward has been met by racists resisting, falling back, regrouping, then finding a way to maintain their hatred with a genius and an energy they never apply to solving our common problems. Forgiveness, for their own sins and for those they oppressed and oppress, seems beyond their capacity.

Editor’s note: An earlier headline on this column didn’t reflect the totality of the message of the writer. The headline was changed to better reflect the substance of the column.