Racial Illiteracy and Gone with the Wind

The Harris poll asked 2500 Americans what their favorite books were, and got this list of the top ten most popular books in the United States:

  1. The Bible
  2. Gone With the Wind
  3. Lord of the Rings
  4. Harry Potter
  5. The Stand
  6. The Da Vinci Code
  7. To Kill a Mockingbird
  8. Angels and Demons
  9. Atlas Shrugged
  10. Catcher in the Rye

As expected, the Bible was number one, but look at number two, Gone with the Wind. The movie made from this much-read novel (photo credit) is one of the most watched movies of all time, and probably is showing somewhere on the planet every moment of every day. This popularity of novel and movie helps to explain the extreme racial illiteracy that exists in the United States. This is one of the most racially stereotyped and openly racist novels of all time, one that with the associated movie has “educated” so many white Americans into foolish, wrongheaded, and blatantly racist ideas about both slavery and African Americans.

According to the Reuters article both:

Whites and Hispanics picked Gone With the Wind as their second-favorite book after the Bible, while African-Americans preferred Angels and Demons.

There was also variation by region:

Picks for second-favorite book also varied according to region. Gone With the Wind was number two in the southern and midwestern United States while easterners chose The Lord of the Rings and westerners opted for The Stand.

The movie Gone with the Wind, one of the favorite movies of all time, followed the extreme and vicious Klan-praising movie, Birth of a Nation, by just 24 years and carried much of the same racist ideology. The author of the novel (The Clansman, 1905) on which Birth of a Nation was based, Thomas Dixon, wrote a letter of great praise to Margaret Mitchell about how great Gone with the Wind was:

“the greatest story of the South ever put down on paper, you have given the world THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL.”

Mitchell responded with great praise for Dixon’s extremist Klan-praising books. The comments are quoted in a fine scholarly book Screen Saviors by the savvy movie analysts, Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon, who add this:

“In truth, the film Gone with the Wind is Birth of a Nation without the bed sheets and hoods of the Klan.”

They also point out that Gone with the Wind portrays an antebellum South transforming into a new industrial South, but indeed a mythical antebellum South of romantic “happiness and wholeness” and one with “antiseptic slavery without whips, chains, or rape.” And

“blacks appear mostly as slaves: loyal servants like Prissy . . . , or clownish servants. Whites are seen as worthy of the subservience, loyalty, and love of faithful servants.“

The extremely dehumanizing, exploitative, and bloody reality of slavery, with its great violence against (including much rape of black women) enslaved African Americans, is missing from the novel and the movie.

No wonder most white Americans (and many others) are so naïve about what slavery was and are in general so poorly informed about the country’s racial history. Indeed, I have given many lectures at our colleges and universities across the country, and not one person yet has known who Ann Dandridge was when I asked. Guess………. She was the black half-sister of Martha Dandridge Washington, the child of rape by Martha’s powerful father, John Dandridge. This account of Ann Dandridge probably tells you more that is accurate about the character of US slavery than the whole movie of Gone with the Wind.

Indeed, many whites and others who do not know of Ann Dandridge, I hazard the guess, do indeed think they know a great deal about the (heroic?) whites and (faithfully servile?) blacks who lived in the antebellum South during slavery from the “wonderful” movie or book, Gone with the Wind. But they are wrong.

Racism, Sexism and Intersectionality

Recently I was involved with putting together a special issue of the journal Gender & Society that focused on what we now call “intersectionality” and what, in sociology, we started out calling “the intersection of race, class and gender” back in the late-1980s.  I mention that less out of shameless self-promotion, and more as just an indication that I’m someone who’s been in the field and thinking about the connections between these dimensions of oppression for some time.  And, like anyone in a particular field for awhile, the domain assumptions of that field begin appear self-evident.    It’s sometimes easy to think,“well, obviously, race, class and gender are inseparable and must be considered in relation to each other.”  And, even, after awhile, “everyone knows this by now, there’s nothing new to say here….” and then something like this Op-Ed appears.   Apparently, this 25 year old meme in academia hasn’t quite reached Nicholas Kristof (NB: thanks to careful readers Greg & JJ for catching my mistake!) at the New York Times, who  writes:

At first glance, it may seem that Barack Obama would face a stronger impediment than Hillary Clinton. Experiments have shown that the brain categorizes people by race in less than 100 milliseconds (one-tenth of a second), about 50 milliseconds before determining sex. And evolutionary psychologists believe we’re hard-wired to be suspicious of people outside our own group, to save our ancestors from blithely greeting enemy tribes of cave men. In contrast, there’s no hard-wired hostility toward women, though men may have a hard-wired desire to control and impregnate them.

Yet racism may also be easier to override than sexism. For example, one experiment found it easy for whites to admire African-American doctors; they just mentally categorized them as “doctors” rather than as “blacks.” Meanwhile, whites categorize black doctors whom they dislike as “blacks.”

It’s hard to know where to begin to unpack Kristof’s assumptions.  For today, I’m going to leave aside the drivel about what is, and is not,  “hard-wired” into human behavior and address the larger point Kristof is making here that “racism may be easier to override than sexism.”   To support this claim, he goes on to refer to (but not cite) an experiment involving “African American doctors,” to conclude something about the persistence of racism.  However, he doesn’t mention the gender of the doctors in this experiment.  My guess is that Kristol (and perhaps the experimenters?) presume that the doctors are men and thus, “only race” is relevant.   Kristof here is engaging in a common fallacy of “separate silos,” or parallel systems, of thinking about race, gender (and by extension, class, although he does not explicitly address this in his op-ed).   In this paradigm, race runs along one track, gender along another and class along a third, and they never coincide or overlap.  So, in this way of thinking, it’s possible to talk about “race” as if, “all the Blacks are men,” and to talk about gender as if “all the women are White” (with deep gratitude to this brave volume).     As if.     This is not only a facile, and flawed, way of thinking about race and gender, it actually obfuscates rather than illuminates the way these systems of domination work.  Let me offer a few examples to illustrate what I mean. Continue reading…