THE ORIGINAL SIN: Little had changed!


Part 4—When crosses burned just outside Philly: We’ll state an impression. For obvious reasons, our impression could be wrong.

It seems to us that Ta-Nehisi Coates reacted emotionally, in a personal way, when Forest Whitaker was falsely accused in that New York deli.

There’s certainly no earthly reason why Coates shouldn’t have reacted that way. The false accusation occurred in a deli which Coates and his family had frequented. At the end of his column, in a rather odd moment, he is asked to imagine the possibility of his own son being falsely accused, perhaps frisked.

A person probably should respond emotionally to such a possibility, or even to the possibility that he himself could be falsely accused. That said, our emotions don’t always help us reason clearly, and, as recent regular readers of Coates, we were surprised by the logical leaps which dominated his column.

Many of Coates’ commenters were quick to react and to judge, failing to see that they may not know what they were talking about. Writing from Arizona, Coates’ Commenter 7 offered these thoughts: “I suspect the owner had a lot of input into the employee's training, and the owner's ‘ruefulness’ could be the result of his racism coming out of the closet.”

That’s certainly possible! Everything is! Meanwhile, writing from Michigan, Commenter 8 offered these condescending thoughts about “Ms. Average Ally:”
COMMENTER FROM MICHIGAN (3/7/13): The further we get away from our past, the less we're educated about the systemic racism that is prevalent in our systems, organizations, way of life, culture, and so on.

The less and less that Ms. Average Ally realizes that she benefited from these systems, albeit obliquely and without asking to, the less and less she will be willing to cop to it and more closely examine her intents, motivations and so on.
Thank God we have people like Commenter 8 to keep track of all our intents!

The comment thread is full of prejudgment and condescension from Coates’ self-impressed readers. Our view? Because we the people react in such ways, we need better guidance from intellectual leaders than Coates provided, perhaps understandably, at various points in this one column.

The column found Coates in a very blue mood; repeatedly, we thought his logic suffered. One striking example came midway through his piece.

In the following passage, Coates says he believes the representations of the deli’s owner, although he doesn’t tell us why. From there, he proceeds to make a series of semi-bewildering claims:
COATES (3/7/13): Since the Whitaker affair, I’ve read and listened to interviews with the owner of the establishment. He is apologetic to a fault and is sincerely mortified. He says that it was a “sincere mistake” made by a “decent man” who was “just doing his job.” I believe him. And yet for weeks now I have walked up Broadway, glancing through its windows with a mood somewhere between Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover” and Al Green’s “For the Good Times.”

In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.”

A half-century later little had changed. The comedian Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) once yelled at a black heckler from the stage: “He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!” Confronted about this, Richards apologized and then said, “I’m not a racist,” and called the claim “insane.”
For ourselves, we’re always annoyed when writers tell us what “we” believe in (fill in the blank). In this passage, Coates tells us what “we” believe “in modern America.” He then provides an example from 1957 as the first part of his proof.

Especially in terms of race, is 1957 “modern America?” Beyond that, is it really true that “little had changed” (apparently in the things “we” believe) by the time Michael Richards engaged in his ridiculous conduct fifty years later?

For ourselves, we’ll have to admit it—it had never occurred to us that racism, whatever that’s taken to mean, is “the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed.” Nor would it have occurred to us that this is something “we” believe “in modern America,” although some people certainly may.

That said, several commenters challenged Coates’ downbeat claim that “little had changed” since 1957—and that Richards’ outburst somehow showed that. To evaluate those representations, it might be worth understanding what actually happened in 1957 in the case to which Coates refers.

Here’s what happened:

In the summer of 57, the Myers family, a family of four, purchased a modest home in Levittown, Pa. At the time, the large new subdivision was entirely white.

The Myers family was black.

Forty years later, Knight-Ridder’s Lacy McCrary recalled what happened next. As it appeared in the Baltimore Sun, her account started like this:
MCCRARY (8/21/97): Daisy Myers vividly remembers the rocks through the windows, the taunts and name-calling and cross-burnings and the day-and-night blaring of "Old Black Joe" that greeted her arrival as a member of the first African-American family in Levittown, Pa., 40 years ago.

Memories of nights, more than a week of them, in which a mob that was estimated from 200 to 1,000 people gathered along Deepgreen Lane in the Dog Hollow section screaming racial epithets, throwing Molotov cocktails and yelling threats.

But she quickly dismisses those memories. She says that she prefers to remember the positives that came out of those violent summer days in August 1957.

"I look back on it as not a bad time in my life. With all of my schooling [two master's degrees], I would never have learned as much about human nature as I did then..."
Daisy Myers, who died in 2011, was one of the many deeply remarkable people who emerged from the civil right era. That said, the fury with which she and her family were greeted in Levittown is well worth recalling. (Her husband, William Myers, an engineer, died in 1987.)

For our money, Myers’ glorious sense of humor stands out in McCrary’s report. But in this passage, McCrary described more of the violence which greeted the Myers family and some of their local supporters:
MCCRARY: On the seventh night, more than 500 gathered, and state troopers, called in by Gov. George Leader, pushed the crowd back a block. Stones started flying at the troopers. The troopers charged the crowd, batons swinging. A Bristol Township officer was hit in the head by a rock and knocked unconscious. A few arrests were made, amid shouts of "Gestapo," and the mob activity was over.

The state police protected the home for at least a month, and an injunction was obtained against the [Levittown] Betterment Group forbidding harassment of the family.

Two people were convicted of burning a cross on [Lewis] Wechsler's lawn.

Wechsler, an infantryman in World War II, knew fear on the battlefield. But he said the fear he felt on Deepgreen Lane was worse.
As noted, the governor sent in the state police; they protected the Myers family for a month. Meanwhile, crosses were burned and death threats were extended, not just to the Myers family but to various local people who supported their right to be present in the home they had purchased.

McCrary’s report is well worth reading, especially since these events occurred just outside Philadelphia—Pennsylvania, not Mississippi. Though we’ll also note that the rueful irony of Daisy Myers was a very strong part of her piece:
MCCRARY: For more than a week, the mobs of whites railed outside the Myerses' home.

Some of them moved into an empty house behind them, unfurled a Confederate flag, and played loud music day and night.

"The only one I remember was 'Old Black Joe' and I thought it was kind of funny. Somebody asked if we could stand the noise, and I said if the neighbors can stand it, we can too," said Daisy Myers.
Good lord! And ain't Daisy Myers America!

Earlier in the report, Myers was quoted saying that “that she prefers to remember the positives that came out of those violent summer days in August 1957.” Myers was one of the many remarkable people who emerged from this era:
MCCRARY: "I look back on it as not a bad time in my life. With all of my schooling [two master's degrees], I would never have learned as much about human nature as I did then, and I wouldn't have met such fine people like Martin Luther King, Pearl Buck and Jackie Robinson."

All of them, and many others, wrote to Myers and her husband, William E. Myers Jr., during their several-week ordeal in what had been an idyllic suburban, and white, community of 17,311 houses the largest planned community in the world. Today, it is still a mostly white town of about 60,000 residents.

"People brought us food very often. All kinds of fruit and food and flowers. One woman came from another section of Levittown one day and offered to clean up the house for me," she said, in a telephone interview from York, Pa., where she works for the federal government.

Myers also believes her family's plight spawned a fair-housing law passed by the state about a year afterward. "I think of all the beautiful people who came to help us out, and I throw out of my mind all the other stuff," said Myers, 72.
Pennsylvania’s governor and attorney general responded in appropriate ways. There were various people in the community who supported the Myers family.

But the conduct involved here was widespread and horrific. It’s hard to know why we’d want to say that “little had changed” by 2007, just because the dumbest cast member of a TV show which pictured a whites-only New York City behaved in a deeply ridiculous way in a comedy club one night.

When Richards behaved in the way he did, he was roundly condemned for his conduct. Is it really clear that “little had changed” in the fifty years which had passed? Is some larger purpose served by making this gloomy assessment?

Had anything changed in Levittown as those many years passed? The community still has few black residents. But when Daisy Myers died in 2011, she was remembered by J. D. Mullane in some Philadelphia-area newspapers.

Mullane recorded these events. Some commenters to Coates’ column will be able to see right through them:
MULLANE (12/13/11): The story was forgotten until 1999, when then-Mayor Sam Fenton, reading a series about the ordeal in this newspaper, invited Mrs. Myers to Bristol Township for a public apology.

She accepted, though she said it wasn’t necessary. She had forgiven in 1957. After the mobs went away, many Levittown residents who had kept silent privately apologized.

The community attempted to make amends. Mrs. Myers was invited to join and was immediately made president of the Dogwood Hollow neighborhood association, a leadership position for women of that era. Bristol Township hired her to supervise the township’s playgrounds, a position of public trust.

“I never forgot what happened in Levittown. I describe it as a wound that never really healed,” she said. “You can stay angry and bitter, or you move along. It’s not like you can accept an apology and it’s over. You have to work at it, sometimes a long time, maybe the rest of your life.”

So, she returned to Levittown several times in the last dozen years—to light the Bristol Township Christmas tree (named in her honor), as the grand marshal of a parade, to sign her memoirs. On each visit, someone inevitably said, “I’m sorry for what you had to go through.” She would say, “Let’s be friends, OK?”
Each person will have to decide whether these events represent significant change. For ourselves, we think the passage from Coates’ column we have posted represents a deeply blue fugue which may be understandable but seems a bit hard to sustain.

It seems to us that a lot has changed since 1957. No such change is ever enough, of course, especially to the legions who make their bones asserting their own moral greatness. We do not ascribe that flaw to Coates, though it’s found all through the comment thread.

Also found is the burning desire to keep lack of hope alive. This commenter articulates a strain of thought found throughout the thread:
COMMENTER FROM NEW YORK: As a professor teaching undergraduates, we have been discussing this semester the relationship between law and race. Many of my students, regardless of race, seem to misunderstand the nature of "racism." It's not just the guy in the white sheet. It's in all of us, because we were raised in a racist society...
Mr. T once pitied the fool. We pity the poor undergraduate, including even the black kids! Is it just our imagination, or is this professor conflating men in white sheets burning crosses on lawns (and perhaps doing much, much worse) with the inexcusable thoughts, impulses and misjudgments which are said to be in “all of us,” and which almost surely are?

It’s in all of us, this professor explains. Coates reports that little has changed. Tomorrow, we’ll examine a “war” Coates describes in his piece, and we’ll look at some comments from young white people who seem to be waging a war on themselves.

They’re waging wars of self-flagellation. These young people can’t stop dropping R-bombs—and they’re dropping these R-bombs on their own heads.

Is anything gained from their conduct? Will this approach make matters change?


  1. the saga of the Meyers family sounds a lot like the Arthur Miller novel Focus, (1945) which resulted in a 2002 movie starring William H. Macy.

    The protagonist lives comfortably in a Levittown-type suburb until he buys a pair of glasses that make him look "Jewish".

    He sympathizes with a local Jewish storeowner that has been subjected to anti-Semitism.

    He is anguished because he and his tormenters are WWII veterans that were supposed to have been fighting anti-Semitism.

    He refuses to explain that he is not Jewish because he believes that would be going over to the side of the bigots, and suffers attacks along with the storeowner.

  2. I hope TNC reads this blog. He's a thoughtful guy, and I'd be interested to read his response to Bob's analysis, which I find refreshing. Moral outrage can be a potent and important force, but it feels so good to wield it!

  3. "Is it just our imagination, or is this professor conflating men in white sheets burning crosses on lawns (and perhaps doing much, much worse) with the inexcusable thoughts, impulses and misjudgments which are said to be in “all of us,” and which almost surely are?"

    When we say that one thing is the same as the other, there are two different things we might mean: (1) they are exactly the same, or (2) they are the same kind of thing in a more general way (e.g., red and blue are the same thing--i.e., they are both colors--but they are not exactly the same). When you suggest the professor is conflating the cross-burning men in white sheets with what is inside of all of us, you are taking his claim in the first sense. Now, I'm not that professor and cannot read his or her mind, but I would be very reluctant to read the comment in that way. It is far more plausible to think that he or she meant that racism takes many different forms, that the most visible of these (e.g., the cross-burning) sometimes obscure from our view the other forms that racism might take, and that we ought to try to be cognizant of ways that many of us benefit from the less visible forms of racism. (I think Coates has expressed a similar point of view; see his recent writings on why there is a gap in wealth between black and white families.)

    As a professor (though different from the commenter quoted above) myself, I can tell you that many of my students ARE blind to other forms of racism. Those other forms are less visible and less easily condemned, but they have terrible consequences that continue to linger. (To your credit, you continually remind us that today's black students are growing up in an environment that was shaped by a longstanding policy of punishing blacks who tried to learn to read.) When I teach the philosophical arguments for and against affirmative action to my students, I always hear (from most of my white students) that racism is a thing of the past. Because there is no (anti-black) racism now, affirmative action is really a form of reverse discrimination. They feel threatened by the potential loss of a job or law school offer to a minority candidate, which is understandable. But they do not see the benefits their accumulated wealth has made possible--the better schools they have attended, the private tutors they could afford, the test prep they were able to do, etc. (There are also more egregious forms of racism at work, too, like black job applicants receiving offers at a substantially lower rate than equally qualified white applicants.)

    I know that you think it is a losing move, politically, for liberals to continually call attention to these issues. Whether or not that is correct, as a matter of political strategy, I think there is a clear moral case for continuing to argue that we need to focus our attention on racism of this sort. It may be difficult to do, given that it is less obviously at work in any particular incident (including the one Coates is writing about), but that is a reason to try to do it better rather than not to do it at all.

    1. There are some things you do because it is the right thing to do. Not because it is good politics.

    2. Bob is re-fighting the political wars of the 80s and 90s (hence his endless obsession with Campaign You Know When). Actually, the voting demographics of the country are changing. The people who Bob is endlessly trying to appeal to --- working class Southern whites and Northern ethics --- aren't coming back to the Democratic coaltion, the older ones anyway.

      There's probably more "space" to discuss race now than there was during the 80s and 90s, when it was toxic because the electorate was, proportionally, whiter.

      This isn't to say we should obsess about racism, but it's also to say that sidestepping it isn't necessary any more either.

      I wish those voters Bob wants back would come to their natural economic political home. Many have tried to woo them. But Bob is fighting the last war, and bluntly, the Democrats have been doing pretty well lately not heeding his sage advice.

      And if the Democrats do lose, you can always blame Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins.

    3. This. A thousand times, this.

      I appreciate Bob's work documenting the lunacy of the Clinton and Gore wars of the 90s, but we're coming up on the twentieth anniversary of Lewinsky, and the world has... Moved on.

      Bob's working class have been reliable GOP voters all of my adult life and they're not turning back now. Team Hoverround lives in a world of diminished expectations and a volatile economy.

      The rising Democratic Majority, young, female, brown and black is the future.

  4. "I know that you think it is a losing move, politically, for liberals to continually call attention to these issues."

    Hmm. Sounds like a strawman to me, not Somerby's real complaint.

    I always thought Somerby's complaint wasn't so much that we "call attention to these issues," as that we invent these issues -- for example by using experimental psych statistics to call whites racist against blacks without noting those rates would also force us to say many blacks are also racist against blacks.

    The question of the day, is this approach going to get happy results? I don't think you, Professor -- or "Democrat" above either -- have done anything to show that we will benefit from this blanket "Racism!!!" gambit.

    But who knows. If it doesn't work, you can always blame Bob Somerby. That's a pet project for some regular commenters here...

    1. Your ability to comprehend such turgid, infelicitous, clunky, and tiresome writing is impressive. Perhaps you also have a high tolerance for hectoring and repetition. Bob may in fact make good points, but this site is monotonous.

    2. Many of the people who make use of the data from the social psychology work on implicit bias DO point out that many blacks have the same implicit biases as many whites. In a way, that's part of the point Coates is trying to make. It is too easy to say that we are not racists because we don't burn crosses or use the "N" word. We are (many of us) still the beneficiaries of a legacy of racism with no desire to think about what that means and how it might be rectified. And we are still engaging in low-level racist patterns of behavior that nevertheless have pernicious effects. This is not inventing issues--it is recognizing them for what they are.

      For what it's worth, one further effect of the tendency to think of racism as defined by things like cross-burning is that we think it is very shameful to be called racist. (And then we think we're not shameful, so we can't be racist...) But if it is the low-grade racism--e.g., implicit bias--it isn't something that we should be embarrassed about. It's just something we should fix.

  5. I think the issue is whose victimization we put our focus on, our own or others'. If our focus is on others' (as Ms. Myers appears to have done her best -- which was very good, indeed -- to achieve), we may actually contribute to making the world a better place, for ourselves no less than for others.

  6. This post is very persuasive that a lot has changed since the 1950s. But I don't think that Coates would disagree. I think that it's pretty obvious that when he says "A half-century later little had changed," that the implied meaning given the context is "A half-century later little had changed, in that racists continue to deny their racism."