As MLK day approached, I decided to re-read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography written around 1845, depicting his life as a slave and his escape to freedom in the North. In the book Douglas describes the wretched conditions of slavery that he experienced, including an inadequate clothing allowance, insufficient food, and random beatings often administered with no purpose other than to terrify the victims.
He describes the justice system in Talbot County, Maryland, where he was enslaved, not far from the oft visited and picturesque St. Michael's. An overseer who had shot a slave to death could only be brought to trial if a white person had witnessed the crime and was willing to testify, a highly unlikely event. Fifty slaves might have witnessed the event, but by law they could not testify against a white man.
|No Marker on Slavery???|
Now, perception is reality, and people usually choose to see what they want to see. As I read the book, I realized I was reading a view of slavery that does not exist in most white minds. The white view of slavery is that of Tara, the plantation in Gone with the Wind, where no slave goes hungry or ill-clothed, no whippings occur, and the slaves are happy to serve their master or mistress.
This got me to reflect on other perceptions of the white mind regarding blacks, not all white minds certainly, but many. It works like this:
· White eyes upon seeing a line at the welfare office, find the number of blacks in that line to be highly visible while the whites go unnoticed. However, switch to a line of job applicants, and the reverse happens: the whites become visible, and the blacks become invisible. Amazing!
· When white eyes see a white man in a BMW, they see success; put a black man behind the wheel of the same car, and they see a potential criminal, probably a drug dealer.
· White eyes that have no trouble seeing black poverty, are blind when it comes to seeing white poverty. If you tell them the fact that there are more white people on welfare in Pennsylvania than black people, they simply don't believe you.
· White eyes have a great deal of trouble seeing a black middle class or upper class.
The white mind perceives this country has one of truly equal opportunity: if you're willing to work and play by the rules you have the same chance of making it as any other person. But, if you're a freeloader who is unwilling to work, don't come crying to them. They honestly believe that a white job applicant and a black job applicant with equal qualifications have the same chance of getting a job that both are applying for.
And then along came Obama, a man whose adjectives didn't fit the perceptions of many white minds: hard-working, intelligent, educated, family oriented. So, they came up with their own descriptions: foreign, socialist, apologizer and code words like "lazy". They vowed to thwart him on every issue, even if they had supported that issue in the past, something they would never have done to a white president.
Will white perceptions ever change? Of course! Obama wouldn't have been elected to two terms without white votes. The younger generation, growing up in a diverse society, will see more clearly than the boomer generation, although many boomers must be given credit for being more tolerant than their parents were. We are inching along toward the day when any person, even a president, might be judged by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, to paraphrase Dr. King. It can’t come soon enough.
NOTE: eReaders can get the Douglass autobiography free on Amazon