Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The angry white woman

I clipped this letter to the editor from the newspaper in 2001 and found it recently when going through a box of miscellaneous papers. I remembered it because it seemed so extraordinary in its racist viewpoint, especially in the 21st century. But then, based on the internal evidence of the writer’s age (“I have been watching TV since it first became available”) it seemed more related to attitudes of a former generation. I remember talk like that, blatant and ugly. Even my parents occasionally sounded just as bigoted as the writer.

Poor Norma. She complains that she wears out her remote controls changing the channel every time she sees the “propaganda” being put out by African-Americans. She exhorts white people to do something. She implies she wants to return to the segregation of the past. She says there are “rich blacks” who can buy their own TV stations, put on their own programming, so she could save her remotes from wear and tear. Television stations, separate but equal, appears to be the Norma agenda.

According to Norma, African-Americans feel white people “owe” them something. They even think they are owed parts on TV.

In the early-to-mid sixties, when I was a teen, I saw black people on television when they were on the news being punished for wanting their legal rights. It was the time of the civil rights struggle. We saw news film of peaceful marchers being sprayed with fire hoses, or having dogs set upon them. It was a time when black people speaking out about human rights could be killed. Medger Evers found that out. Martin Luther King found that out. I wonder if Norma thought black people felt they were owed violent death and brutal repression in order to get on television?

Television producers put African-Americans in shows like Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, and I Spy and the characters were accepted. Probably not by Norma, whom I visualize frantically clicking her remote to remove those black people from her sight, but there came a time when the television industry found it was good sense to include minority cast members to collect good will (and loyal viewers) amongst the minority community. It just made sense. Commercial television is about selling products. The African-American community, making up just over 10% of the country’s population, is a huge market.

When my son grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s black characters were seen on television a lot, and he didn’t think of it at all. It’s the way things work; when black people were just part of a faceless group subject to discrimination laws, then many white people, and I suspect Norma was one of them, felt that was the way it should be. When we began seeing African-Americans on television then they became individuals. It’s a cycle that is now repeating itself with a growing acceptance of gay people: once you see someone on television you feel you know them, and it’s easier to accept them. That familiarity didn't work for Norma, though. It scared her and others who thought like her.

Something Norma really missed in her rant is that civil rights laws were passed by white people. At the time black people had no power except the power to protest and make their grievances known. Television, and all TV networks were controlled by whites, was an important part of getting the civil rights message across to the largest number of people. In retrospect, it may have been the most important part.

The Salt Lake Tribune chose to run Norma’s letter, probably expecting that it would cause a discussion. Usually when an extremist viewpoint is published it stimulates others to write. As I recall none of that happened with Norma’s letter. I clipped it because I planned on writing a response, but if you look at the date I inked onto the bottom of her letter you may understand why the letter remained unanswered. The day after it appeared the events of 9/11 occurred and Norma’s remote control suddenly seemed unimportant.

For curiosity’s sake I googled Norma’s name and town and came up with a woman in her late eighties. If she’s the same person then when she wrote the letter she was in her seventies. She had some strong prejudices. If Norma is still a bigot then she’s probably very unhappy the President of the U.S. is African-American, and I’ll bet her old TV remote has really had a workout since 2008.

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