- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2002

The America of today is so racially different from the America of yesterday, meaning a generation ago, that it is sometimes difficult to accept much less appreciate the reality of the metamorphosis, which is why Jerrold M. Packard's American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow (St. Martin's, $24.95, 291 pages, illus.) is a "must read" for those who want to understand how a once sordidly divided society evolved into a culturally diverse meritocracy.
The American Civil War ended in April, 1865, only a few weeks after President Lincoln's second inaugural address, which many consider to be his finest speech. The president eloquently called for national reconciliation as the war's end was approaching when he said, "With malice toward none, charity for all." As a fellow Southerner, born in Kentucky in 1809, he intended to pardon, not punish, the South. So far he is the only American president who was as much a "poet" as he was a politician.
Like Rev. Martin Luther King a century later, Lincoln was a leader who understood that language has the power to animate and lead the soul of a people. I was present at King's "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial and the setting had to be an obvious source of inspiration for him. It certainly was for me and thousands of others.
On Good Friday of 1865, firing one shot to the back of Lincoln's head, John Wilkes Booth silenced the voice of the nation's savior. For Americans of that time the assassination was the September 11 of their lives. Nothing would ever be the same again, and there were consequences.
The South was reconstructed by radical Republicans who reigned supreme in both houses of the Congress and who unlike the munificent Lincoln were determined to punish and humiliate the South for its four years of bloody and costly rebellion. This is more the pity since there is good reason to believe that had Lincoln lived, he would have invited both Gen. Robert E. Lee (whom the president admired immensely) and Frederick Douglass (Lee's "partner" and "co-founding father" of a new America) to help formulate Southern reconstruction. Lest we forget, Lincoln offered command of the Union army to Lee at the advent of the war and he, on many occasions, characterized Douglass as "the most meritorious man I have ever met."
Mr. Packard's book is a very powerful and unsettling story of our nation's century-long "pogrom" by vengeful white Souterners against their black neighbors. Reading these pages one is reminded just how brutal and widespread white supremacy was in the South, especially in Mississippi and Alabama. The author carefully documents the enormous number of beatings and lynchings and the burnings of black homes and businesses. What he has provided is a riveting portrait of a region that for decades was ruled by bloodthirsty terrorists who were determined at all costs to prevent blacks from becoming the social equals of whites.
It is not an exaggeration to compare these men to the Nazi SS and Gestapo, even though their violence fell short of systematically exterminating blacks. The white opposition to "Jim Crow," and its code of fear and violence was secret and silent. In this particular situation I do not believe that silence should have been construed as consent.
After many years of absolute horror, terrorism was eventally dethroned by black and white civil rights activists motivated most notably by the work and words of Martin Luther King, the only American who is honored with a federal holiday. From 1955 (the year of Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus) to 1965 (the year of the Voting Rights Act) King bravely led the nonviolent movement to change the law and the character of the country. As a direct consequence of his courage the South is earnestly continuing the hard work ignited by him of remaking itself and to atoning for the ghastly sins of its not-too-distant past.

Glenn C. Loury, professor of economics at Boston University, has written an engaging book. In The Anatomy of Racial Inequality (Harvard University Press, $22.95, 218 pages), he explores and explains the continuing struggle to achieve racial parity and social progress. His examination of racial stereotypes are particularly arresting, especially when one considers how many blacks much to their detriment not only accept negative images of themselves but seem to be living out and rationalizing them as well. For example he states:
"Observers have difficulty identifying with the plight of a people whom they mistakenly assume simply to be 'reaping what they have sown.' This lack of empathy undermines public enthusiasm for egalitarian racial reform."
In today's America it is hard to write honestly about issues associated with race and the author does a commendable job of examining the lingering impact of the legacy of slavery and how some blacks foolishly exploit it to their advantage. This they do by perpetuating the alleged uniqueness of their bondage and victimhood, and they go forward to assert a need for government-sponsored special compensatory measures to reverse the wrongs of the past.
Mr. Loury is a balanced interpreter of American society, so he preditably criticizes both liberals and conservatives for their "simplistic" approaches to resolving racial misunderstandings that all too often contribute to the creation of unnecessary conflicts between the races. Although this is not a "break-through" book many others share the author's opinions it is thought-provoking and insightful and the author's musings on a variety of sensitive subjects certainly merit our attention.

In his most recent book, The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America (Washington Square, $22, 163 pages) Ellis Cose, a contributing editor for Newsweek, has produced a provocative statement on the plight of African-American males. As he says in his opening chapter: "To put it bluntly, we are watching the largest group of black males in history stumbling through life with a ball and chain wrappped around their legs."
He continues: "The statistics would be shocking were they not so familiar. Some 792,000 black males a record number were in U.S. prisons and jails as of June, 2000. Unless we somehow change our present course, one out of four black boys will spend at least a part of his life locked down."
The author studiously examines the seductive, siren-like "call" of the streets that causes so many black males to engage in a fruitless life of drugs, theft, murder, alcohol abuse, abandonment of family and various other familiar forms of self-destructive behavior.
Mr. Cose is at his best when confronting the thorny issue of black males and their widespread rejection of the pursuit of higher education. The idea sadly embraced by so many is that somehow it has become "unmanly," even a "white thing," to want to be as well educated as possible. The author correctly sees such an attitude as an insult to all of those blacks of much earlier eras and of today as well who tirelessly mined their talent and tenacity for the betterment of themselves and their families and their communities.
Mr. Cose's anger is directed largely toward those confused blacks who feel that their social "failure" is a symbol of their "success" in retaining their depraved image of the essence of what it means to be truly black. Such a perverse perception is not only absurd but dangerous as well. Nonetheless, it is celebrated in the world of black entertainment, which exercises a profound influence on the visions and values of African-American youth.
What seems to disturb Mr. Cose the most is the fact that in spite of the pervasive presence of white racism, America is the land of opportunity. Yet so many black males refuse to chart a path that would allow them to grow and compete in such a society.
Those black leaders who choose to exploit racial animosity and extol the "virtues" of victimhood do so at great risk and can easily make an already bad situation much worse. If the issues that Mr. Cose addresses are not confronted immediately we my find that we have lost a sizable portion of a whole generation of black males.
In the final analysis, what angered self-educated Frederick Douglass most about slavery was not its degrading humiliation and physical brutality but its sheer waste of human talent and potential. What would Douglass think if he were alive today, witnessing so many of his people re-enslvaing themselves by choosing to be ignorant and indifferent with regard to the consequences of their choices and their conduct?

Edward C. Smith is the director of American Studies at American University.

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