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Golis: Racism still casts its shadow across the American story

A man wearing a Confederate flag at Sonoma Raceway. (KENT PORTER / Press Democrat, 2015)

PETE GOLIS,

PETE GOLIS IS A COLUMNIST FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT.

Two women, one black and one white, were happily reviewing their produce choices in a Santa Rosa market last week. As the pleasantries concluded, the black woman said, “I want to say something to you.”

“Yes?”

“I want to say thank you. Thank you for not grabbing your purse when you saw me.”

The other woman blinked. “But this is Santa Rosa. That doesn’t happen here … does it?”

“Oh, yes.”

Such are the big and small cruelties associated with racial bias.

While we may pretend that racism doesn’t happen here, history tells us that racism has been with us for a long time — beginning with the mistreatment of Native Americans by the earliest white settlers. As Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton reminded us on Friday — “Don’t be too smug, California” — California committed genocide against Native Americans.

During the Civil War, historians tell us, Santa Rosa and the Russian River Valley to the north were considered “a Confederate stronghold in a Union state.” (In 1864, Sonoma County was the only county in California not to support the re-election of Abraham Lincoln.)

At various times in the history of Sonoma County, people of Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Mexican and African ancestry have been among those who experienced discrimination and persecution.

It turns out Americans have a history of welcoming immigrants to do the hard work of their town and then later making them feel unwelcome.

The lesson here: We still have work to do.

What we didn’t expect last week was a president reluctant to condemn neo-Nazis carrying swastika flags, torch-bearing members of the Ku Klux Klan and people chanting anti-semitic slogans (“Jews will not replace us.”)

As media mogul James Murdoch noted, an unequivocal denunciation of neo-Nazis and Klan marchers should not have been difficult. In protest of President Donald Trump’s response to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, Murdoch donated $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League.

“These events remind us all,” he said, “why vigilance against hate and bigotry is an eternal obligation — a necessary discipline for the preservation of our way of life and our ideals.”

And so we are reminded again how race and the politics of race continue to haunt the American story.

I thought back four years ago to a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and a special exhibition called “The Civil War and American Art.” The most iconic painting from that exhibit — Winslow Homer’s “Prisoners from the Front” — shows three Confederate prisoners defiantly confronting a Union officer.

The curator of the exhibit wrote: “The standoff epitomizes the lingering hostility and bitterness felt on the part of the Confederates, and by extension the Northerners’ cluelessness as to the depth of that animosity.”

The curator added, “Left to pick up the pieces and start anew, many in the South descended into bitter recriminations … and they conjured gallant fantasies of the Lost Cause.”

Now, more than a century and a half later, we are re-litigating the Civil War. In Charlottesville and elsewhere, we are once again debating the meaning of monuments that honor the leaders of the Confederacy, an alliance borne of the desire to keep black people as slaves.

Days before we saw the Civil War exhibit, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to eviscerate the federal Voting Rights Act — a decision that made it easier for the states of the former Confederacy to limit the influence of low-income and minority voters.

I wrote then: “Winslow Homer’s painting — produced a year after the Civil War ended — seems to foretell conflicts that would linger long after slavery was abolished. And so here we are, a nation still divided when it comes to maintaining protections against race bias — a nation still in search of what Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature.’ ”

At this moment, there’s reason to believe that the immediate future will bring more conflict. White supremacist groups have been emboldened by the president’s reactions. And Trump’s popularity with significant numbers of Republican voters causes GOP majorities in Congress to remain afraid to openly challenge him. (On Thursday, a poll showed two-thirds of Republicans were OK with the president’s response to the events in Charlottesville.)

Among the many unhappy consequences, this means the national government will remain in a state of paralysis. Trump and a GOP Congress cannot produce results on supposed areas of agreement — health care, infrastructure and tax cuts — which leaves little or no likelihood that they can respond to the other pressing problems.

Meanwhile, self-inflicted wounds continue to hamper the president’s capacity to lead the country and to find common ground with U.S. allies around the world.

In an implicit rebuke of the president, the nation’s military service chiefs went out of their way to repudiate the views of the white nationalists in Charlottesville.

If you’re not troubled by the thought of what would happen if the country faced a sudden crisis — a military threat, a natural disaster, an economic downturn — you need to pay more attention.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.