Saturday, July 4, 2015

We’ve Got a Long Way to Go: The Confederate Battle Flag, George Takei’s “Uncivil” Rant, & the Legacy of Race in America

Well, if ever anyone needed ammunition to bolster their arguments that the haunting legacies of slavery and the Civil War still impact our nation today, the past few weeks have provided an abundance of troubling evidence.

I, for one, was very troubled over the initial debate over the public display of the Confederate battle flag in the wake of the horrific hate crime in Charleston. To me, it seemed like the “rush to the colors” was not only misguided, but completely wrongheaded – when the bodies of the victims had not been properly memorialized or even buried some acted as if the main takeaway that Americans should be concerned with was whether or not future generations would learn the “real” history of the Confederacy.

Never mind the nine innocent victims who had been slaughtered and the hateful ideology that motivated the Confederate flag-waving killer.

Equally troubling were the recent remarks made by actor George Takei following the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.
Oh my, indeed.

Takei, who has been a champion for gay rights and marriage equality for many years, was not content to celebrate this historic ruling. Instead, he launched into a diatribe against Justice Clarence Thomas’s dissenting opinion that was laced with racist imagery that should have no place in any civil discussion.

What Thomas said that got Takei so fired up was, in part:
Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate…Human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved…The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.
Reacting to that, Takei said of Justice Thomas:
He is a clown in blackface sitting on the Supreme Court. He gets me that angry. He doesn't belong there. And for him to say, slaves have dignity. I mean, doesn't he know that slaves were in chains? That they were whipped on the back. If he saw the movie 12 Years a Slave, you know, they were raped. And he says they had dignity as slaves…I mean, this man does not belong on the Supreme Court. He is an embarrassment. He is a disgrace to America.  
Takei’s reference to blackface harkens back to a disgusting theatrical tradition that propagated racist images and attitudes. Minstrel shows that employed blackface portrayed African Americans as inferior caricatures and blackface clowns were a popular means of reinforcing the “otherness” of black Americans.

Takei has since taken to Facebook to apologize for using this blatantly racist imagery (which he called "uncivil") and suggested that he “referred to [Justice Thomas] as a ‘clown in blackface’ to suggest that he had abdicated and abandoned his heritage.” It is interesting to note that most follow-up comments on his Facebook apology support what he originally said and claimed he had nothing to apologize for.

What Takei did not walk back in his apology were his remarks about slaves not having dignity. One can only give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that he was unartfully stating that slavery stripped dignity from human beings. If humans do not have inherent dignity, then there is no moral law against enslaving them in the first place.

But this, of course, is clearly not what Justice Thomas was suggesting. His line of reasoning was the main underpinning of the abolition movement while Takei alluded to the language and customs used by the defenders of the Slavocracy.

Takei’s language is just as offensive as the proud display of the Confederate flag after the Charleston shooting. While I don’t think that he or the defenders of the Confederate flag are virulent racists, I do think that both display a disturbing lack of understanding and appreciation for the real history of slavery, race, and the legacy of the American Civil War.

We’ve got a long way to go. 

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