The U.S. press has always been fond of redemption tales, especially those involving whites seeking exoneration for earlier crimes against black communities ( photo credit: Image Editor). This recent news story from the Associated Press about an older, now apologetic segregationist and Klan supporter, Elwin Wilson, is no different. This extensive piece written by Helen O’Neill and posted on the Yahoo.com homepage adheres to all the confines and revealing silences of traditional white discourse on racism.
Wilson has apologized publicly and often to this history:
The former Ku Klux Klan supporter says he wants to atone for the cross burnings on Hollis Lake Road. He wants to apologize for hanging a black doll in a noose at the end of his drive, for flinging cantaloupes at black men walking down Main Street, for hurling a jack handle at the black kid jiggling the soda machine in his father’s service station, for brutally beating a 21-year-old seminary student at the bus station in 1961
Once wonders where the attempt at serious reparations is. Apologizing seems rather too weak, indeed.
For another thing, the journalist’s piece reeks of the prevailing white folk theory of racism. As outlined by Jane Hill, the conventional white folk theory of racism treats white racism as a mere pathology held by individuals, something which can be rooted out with education and socio-economic uplift. The author of the AP tale seeks to present Elwin Wilson, a “former Ku Kluxer,” as a redeemed white man who has been enlightened to the error of his old segregationist ways. His apologetic actions play into the white racial frame by pushing white racism, past or present, to the margins of society, rather than being seen as inherent in the dominant white perspective and perpetuated, allowed, or beheld as actions by many, if not all, whites.
According to Otto Santa Ana, the prevailing metaphor for U.S. racism is Racism as Disease. The AP journalist plays into this old white metaphor by describing Wilson as “a sad, sickly man haunted by time.” By characterizing him in this individualistic manner, the (assumed to be white) reader can dissociate him/herself from the aging Wilson, a former Ku-Kluxer suffering from the individual pathology of racism. This tactic of pegging Mr. Wilson as someone suffering from a “peculiar” disease only reinforces the dominant white view that U.S. racism is an individual-level problem, something to be confronted by individuals and not something foundational to the operating of U.S. society. The author reveals her naiveté when she fails to acknowledge the institutionalized, structural nature of racism or its very long, continuing, and unjust history. Wilson did not act alone or as an innovator.
Wilson himself fails to grasp this systemic racism, when he states that “his parents treated everyone equally.” This denying attitude about the segregation era resonates with the findings of Houts-Picca and Feagin, who show from college student diaries just how much whites seek to deny racism even as they do it, and how often they describe as “good” and “fun” or “nice” the white friends or relatives who do blatant racism. By defining recurring racism as a pathological trait beheld by otherwise “good” individuals, it becomes impossible to locate responsibility for white racism.
Also, the journalist unquestionably accepts an Us vs. Them dichotomy when discussing Wilson’s segregationist past and other racial matters with Wilson, who himself seems more concerned with gaining entrance to heaven (his words) than actually righting the wrongs of his past. Wilson refers to African Americans as “[those] people I had trouble with,” and his wife nonchalantly states “they’re going to be [in heaven] with you.” Later he even states, “By the time I went to college I had dropped all that jumping on them, [but] I still didn’t want to marry one or anything like that.” (By jumping, he means violence.) We can see just how unchanged Wilson’s othering attitudes are. Though he may be touted as a repenting celebrity by many whites and some others, especially those who have internalized the myth of the U.S. now entering a “postracial” era (see the article itself for quotes from some of his elated admirers), one can easily sense ambivalence and continuing white racial framing in the man’s contemporary words and actions.
The AP article is but another example of white writers stroking the egos of the white public, who see whites as rather easily “overcoming” the openly-racist rhetoric and action of the past. Instead of confronting the latent, deep, and commonplace remainders of white-on-black oppression today, this breezy article reinforces the prevailing disease metaphor for white racism and pushes understanding that systemic racism again to the margins of society.
Part of what’s so disappointing and frustrating about this story is that this man, Elwin Wilson, has absolutely no insight into what might have prompted his (supposed) change of heart beyond the rather self-serving motivation of “getting into heaven.” And, of course, the tone and perspective of the article – as you both point out – is obsequious and fawning in the extreme.
Something I think would be interesting is if Whites, in general, would answer the “change of heart” question and take it a step further by not only asking what prompted the change but what was really the underlying issue that had to be changed in the first place. And even further, why after all this “change” has happened, why are so-called racial issues still so contentious today.
The point about the Us vs. Them mentality resonates with me. Mention affirmative action, let alone reparations, and the attitude among Whites who feel like they or they’re family are reformed, repentant, “post racial” is decidely Us vs. Them.
In education, we call the story of Mr. Wilson a “Teachable Moment.” By “confronting the latent, deep, and commonplace remainders of white-on-black oppression today,” the media should confront people like Mr. Wilson through the efforts seen within the Truth & Reconciliation Commission within South Africa. By openly seeing Mr. Wilson confront those he has physically or mentally harmed would be a good start for him to gain an ounce of salvation in my eyes. But as we all know, this story will blow away and the misguided popular media will continue to ignore the plight of the voiceless.