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The past in present tense



About 25 years ago, one of my classmates came to high school dressed in his Ku Klux Klan robe—sans the pointy hat. Being in Indiana, where the KKK had a stranglehold on state government in the 1920s and, even today, lingers like ringworm, the kid was not expelled, suspended or, as far as I knew, even sent to detention. Instead, a school official merely sent him home to change clothes as if, oops, he had spilled lunch milk on his pants.

Intentional or not, the message the students, all of us white, received that day was not that racism is morally despicable; rather, what we learned was that if you are a racist, at least have a bit of decorum.

White denial, as Hal Crowther points out in his essay, remains alive and well in America. There are whites who would deny harboring a shred of racism or prejudice but still believe African Americans should get over it, the past is past, what's done is done.

But it's not done. The past is still present, whether political pundit Pat Buchanan is speaking in racist code about Barack Obama or the masses are genuflecting before the memory of Jesse Helms. In North Carolina, a 2001 Harvard University study found, black students were more than four times more likely to be identified as mentally retarded as their white peers. It's no coincidence, then, that while blacks compose 22 percent of the state's general population, they make up nearly two-thirds of the prison population, according to a Mother Jones analysis.

And earlier this month, racist graffiti was scrawled on a bathroom wall at Chapel Hill's Town Operations Center, directed at a black public works employee.

Last week, Chapel Hill's Justice in Action committee held a well-attended community dialogue on race. (An early incarnation of the committee formed in 2004 after an outcry over changing the name of historic Airport Road to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The road now carries both names to suffocate any budding discrimination against historic airports.)

What struck me was the discussion of "sympathetic indifference," the idea that while whites may "support" racial equality, when it comes to fighting for it, we're nowhere to be seen.

That's what happened at my high school a quarter-century ago. No one, not even I, who would argue about anything, publicly defied the kid in the Klan uniform or the officials who tacitly approved of his behavior. We were in denial.

On a happier note, Vernal Coleman has joined the Indy as a staff writer. Originally from Louisiana, he comes to us from Norfolk, Va., where he wrote for the Port Folio Weekly on a range of topics, including the military, politics and culture.

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