One of my favourite commentators on social issues is Rick Salutin who writes a weekly column for the Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada. Unabashedly left wing he nevertheless is unafraid of criticizing the tactics and policies of the political left. Unlike a lot of writers on the left he doesn’t get hung up in intellectualizing over issues. He manages to keep both of his feet firmly on the ground.
His career has included stints as a playwright and novelist. He was one of the people involved in the early 1970’s in helping develop professional Canadian theatre. His contributions and support helped to establish the small alternative theatres that have since seen Toronto grow to one of the larger live theatre centres in North America, second only to Los Angeles and New York in per capita attendance and facilities.
His columns are often thought provoking, and he is never afraid of poking his pen into issues that others may have felt best left alone. This weeks article is no exception as it raises the spectre of racism in the United State.*
Forty one years ago Edgar Ray Killen, a former Klansman was involved in the murders of three civil rights workers. He has been recently sentenced to sixty years in prison, which he will have to serve in isolation due to fear of retaliation from other prisoners.
"It's kind of a race issue," said a state official, "in that our [prison] population is 70 per cent black." This is what I find perplexing about the "race issue" in the United States. They seem to deal with it impressively. And they don't seem to deal with it at all.
Mr. Salutin’s comment on the state official’s statement serves as an introduction to an outline of the contradictions on the lives of black people in the States. He points out the amazing advances that have happened in the last forty years: a black Secretary of State, (Colin Powell) followed by a female black as Secretary of State(Ms. Rice)Such things he says would not have been believed possible forty years ago.
He cites a book written by a Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal which stated that for the United State to achieve its full potential it would need to come up with a solution to racism. He went on to add that for that to happen major fundamental changes in the fabric of the society would have to occur.
Mr. Salutin points out that on the surface America has managed to do the one without the other. The only societal change that has occurred has been the treatment of individuals by other individuals. In other words personal overt racism is no longer the norm as it was forth years ago. All other aspects of the consumer driven society have stayed relatively the same.
Yet, however much the United States has changed, it remains fervently capitalist, globally interventionist and busily religious in a traditional or fundamentalist way. It has, in other words, managed to accommodate a lot of racial change without seeing its basics profoundly undermined.
What does that say about racism? Does it mean that it was never as deeply entrenched in the American psyche as was first suspected, or have all these changes only been on the surface, or only for a select few?