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Under America's rock, an old ugliness

September 22, 2008|AL MARTINEZ

A man I once knew introduced me to Tom Lehrer's satirical music sometime in the mid-1960s in his small apartment on the edge of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district.

He specifically liked the tune "National Brotherhood Week," because it applied to a current outbreak of racism in the country. He would sing a portion of the lyrics as the scratchy old LP spun around on the turntable and we drank cheap red wine:

Oh, the white folks hate the black folks

And the black folks hate the white folks

To hate all but the right folks

Is an old established rule.

When the song was over, my friend, whose first name was Ken, would shake his head and in the ironic tone that characterized Lehrer, say, "The old ugliness is back." I can't remember his last name, but I'll never forget the phrase.

I write about it today because I sense that that old ugliness may be returning. I heard a snippet of news while half-listening to the car radio that hate mail and racist graffiti had been on the rise since Barack Obama burst upon the national scene with the explosive effect of fireworks.

The first thought that came to mind was Ken's long ago lament. It is a phrase that accurately defines moments in America when racists crawl out from under their everyday lives and up through cracks in our culture to make themselves known.

They're always out there, of course, parading around in hoods or adorned with swastikas, a clownish army of haters who strut about like characters in a comic opera, laughable but deadly, and always with an enthusiastic audience.

They appear in greater numbers during national debates relative to race, stirred by the fiery orations of prominent bigots.

Who could ever forget Alabama Gov. George Wallace's bellowing, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever!" when America was trying to desegregate its schools?

Who can forget a face twisted with hatred as he stood in a doorway of the University of Alabama defying efforts to racially integrate the campus? Worse, who can forget the faces of the crowd yelling racial slurs like football fans responding to the encouragement of their cheerleaders?

The old ugliness was there too.

Today, it appears to have begun spreading across the nation when Sen. Obama became the first African American to ever be nominated for president by a major political party. Instances of racist graffiti and hate mail, some threatening, have been noted by major newspapers and by bloggers who monitor hate groups.

They transcend rumors that also circulate in cyberspace and grow as they are aired to assume a reality of their own. Some of the rumors are the work of political partisans, but most are by those who simply want to stir racial discontent.

For years prior to my column-writing days I was assigned to monitor the growth and movements of hate groups: the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party in all of their various forms, and several smaller, less notable offshoots that were aspiring to big-time status by out-hating each other.

I sought them out across the country in their peculiar environments: a boarded-up storefront on Chicago's south side, for example, where their "Fuehrer" lived, and at a white-robed Klan wedding in a Fresno trailer where a former deputy sheriff gave the bride away.

It was always a surprise to realize that the people who chanted the mantras of the old ugliness were the folks next door, and the folks next door are always around.

I received a shock just a few weeks ago in the form of an e-mail.

It is no surprise when I get racist mail or even when I am the object of racism. But in this case, the e-mailer was someone I had communicated with for years. We were messaging back and forth when the subject of Obama came up and she suddenly blurted with the force of rage, "I will never vote for an African American!"

I was struck not only by the comment but by the ironic use of the socially acceptable "African American." At another time I'm sure she would have used a considerably more hateful term. I guess political correctness counts for something. I don't communicate with her anymore.

One views in despair the resurgence of racial hatreds, but even greater is the fear that someone, encouraged by hatred, might take action. We are not far removed from that time in American history when people have. But it's encouraging to note that instances of racist graffiti from Washington, D.C., to Washington state have been met with an outrage equaling the hideous nature of the act.

We can only hope that the old ugliness is recognized at last for what it is and like the graffiti itself will be washed away in the purifying weather of time.


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