The Past Remains Present

Sports Illustrated has a timely article in the April 7 issue about Lee Elder, the first African-American man to play in the Master’s golf tournament. When did this groundbreaking event occur? It took place in 1975, fourteen years before the PGA’s “Caucasian clause” came off the books and fifteen years before Augusta National, the course that hosts the tournament, accepted its first black member.

The response to this barrier breaking wasn’t entirely positive. While the article states that Elder received “lusty applause at each hole,” he also was forced to keep a low profile. As Damon Hack, the writer of the article, reports:

For months the hate mail had said he would never make it to this day in April 1975. Watch your step when you get to Augusta, other letter writers warned him. There will be blood.

To be safe, he had rented two houses in town and kept moving between them, the former golf-course hustler playing the odds. He made sure he had people around him when he ate his meals. He was as inconspicuous as a man whose face was all over the evening news could be.

This living history—an unexceptional example of the racism that’s persisted in our lifetime and our parent’s lifetimes—took place just 33 years ago. But it’s notable because, as the recent controversy over Presidential candidate Barack Obama’s association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright illustrates, being embittered by or even acknowledging our nation’s racist past is now controversial.

Many conservatives like to dismiss the continuing legacy of racism, throwing it back to some irrelevant past, as if all of this hate happened in some far, distant land instead of the towns where our parents—or we—grew up in. They hold these beliefs despite the fact that there are still far too many places where jobs and homes are limited on the basis of race.

There are still places where people think it’s funny—and certainly unremarkable—to call every black person a nigger. I remember picking up a moving van the day after Hurricane Katrina and having the guy behind the counter laugh to me about “All the niggers running around the city.” There was no doubt in his mind that I shared his views on the subject. I was literally left speechless—a feeble response.

But that feeble response was nothing compared to some of the reactions to the heartfelt speech Obama delivered in response to the Wright “controversy.” Pat Buchanan, a former Presidential candidate and a man who is regularly given a nationwide platform as a guest on MSNBC, had the following to offer:

Barack says we need to have a conversation about race in America.

Fair enough. But this time, it has to be a two-way conversation. White America needs to be heard from, not just lectured to.

This time, the Silent Majority needs to have its convictions, grievances and demands heard. And among them are these:

First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.

Wright ought to go down on his knees and thank God he is an American.

Second, no people anywhere has done more to lift up blacks than white Americans. Untold trillions have been spent since the ’60s on welfare, food stamps, rent supplements, Section 8 housing, Pell grants, student loans, legal services, Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credits and poverty programs designed to bring the African-American community into the mainstream.

Thus proving the point that racism is dead. Seriously, black people, why aren’t you more grateful?