The Cold Hard Truth
By J.L. Chestnut, Jr.
Vol. 10, No. 1, 1988, p. 16
A powerful white Southern politician who for years has helped many black people, including this writer, sought last week to end an outrageous debate with a brother-in-law by asking me if I thought he (the politician) was racist. My prompt response was, “Yes.”
The politician was flabbergasted.
Years ago, this same fella said to me, “Look, everyone knows this is a democracy and all people are supposed to be created equal, created by God and all that jazz, but do you blacks have to go around believing all that pie-in-the-sky? You’re pushing too hard for your equality and it will backlash. Knock it off before we are forced to really get rough with you.”
My politician friend reminded me that it was twenty-five years ago when he uttered that statement. I reminded him that twenty-five years ago he claimed he was not racist.
I did add, however, that my friend’s racism has always been more of the northern variety. In the North, there were almost no lynchings, church bombings and legalized segregation. Thus, northerners suffered from the delusion that they were less racist than the white South.
But, with the advent of the civil rights movement and blacks aggressively challenging white power, northern whites suddenly realized they didn’t like blacks any more than their white southern brothers.
Northern whites, however, had to find a convenient rationalization for their newly discovered bigotry. And, along came Governor George C. Wallace speaking forcefully and deliberately to what was really on white hearts in Milwaukee, Chicago, Indianapolis and other northern cities.
In effect, Wallace’s message was, “Look, I’m a white man and you’re white folks and if there is one thing on which we can agree, it is that we have to get together and atop these blacks before they take over our neighborhoods and marry our daughters.”
Thousands of northern whites said to each other: “Now here’s one white man who makes sense. Let’s go with Wallace and maybe he’ll stop these black radicals.”
Northern editorial writers wanted to say Wallace was right, but did not want to admit that northern whites were no different than their counterparts in the South. They s arched for a gimmick which would expiate long-hidden guilt feelings but permit them to openly indulge in racist politics.
The gimmick they invented was the ‘backlash.” By claiming a backlash they were saying they had never really disliked blacks and were simply reacting–or ‘recoiling’–to blacks being so pushy. If blacks stopped being so pushy, northern whites would atop reacting and voting for Wallace or Barry Goldwater.
Of course, that was not a backlash. It was a frontlash. The racism had been there all the time.
My politician friend is quite northern in his racism. I have always known that.
He fooled himself; not me.
J.L. Chestnut Jr. is an Alabama trial lawyer and writer.