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July 24, 2013

Keep on the Sunny Side

Stand your ground

One of the many privileges enjoyed by rich white people in the United States is the opportunity to indulge in the fantasy of a post-racial society. People who deny the fundamental importance of race in this country are either lying or idiots, or what I would categorize as lying idiots.

Sometimes class can trump race. Being rich is always going to be the better move. Impoverished white people are denied almost as many opportunities as poor people of color. The main divergence appears to be in the legal system. Recently, this has been starkly presented in terms of who might reasonably be allowed to kill whom based on skin tone or racially charged fashion choices — a little window into the cracker-assed bullshit of Florida’s legal system that was made even more terrifying by following so closely behind the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act.

Anyone who claims George Zimmerman would still be hanging out as a free man if he had chosen to stalk and kill a white child is, like I said, either lying or an idiot. Either way, they are wrong.

Racism in the entertainment industrial complex has been well-documented since the days of the minstrel show circuit. Racially integrated bands are far more common now than when Billie Holiday sang with Artie Shaw, or in the heyday of Booker T. & the M.G.’s and Sly and the Family Stone. The music world is just ever so slightly out in front of the general population.

When the amazing all-girl jazz band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm toured the Jim Crow South in the 1940s, the white members of the band sometimes wore makeup to disguise the fact that the racially integrated band was violating laws against “race mixing.” The band originally formed at the Piney Woods Country Life School in rural Mississippi — the same African-American orphanage that gave us The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.

In April of 1956, Nat King Cole, who was fronting an integrated band, was attacked on stage by three members of the Alabama Citizens Council at a whites-only show in Birmingham, the town where he was born. His attackers’ organization was dedicated not only to continuing segregation but also to ending the mongrelizing, Communist influence of rock ’n’ roll.

Sun Studios mastermind Sam Phillips’ infamous statement about his dream of finding a white man who sounded like a black man — and how that dream was fulfilled by a shy truck driver from Tupelo — was, if not apocryphal, then cynical and unusually honest. The tendency of white people to pillage the work of black artists is ongoing.

On an average day, most white boys in this country are dressed in gangsta costumes from Wal-Mart. Their parents find low-slung, butt-crack-displaying trousers you can barely walk in cute on white children but really terrifying on black children. These clothes are almost certainly sewn in dangerous factories by dark-skinned people in faraway countries — places that our inadequate public education system will probably never teach us about. That particular diatribe is for another day.

Historically, opinions about race, like those regarding class, have been passed from one generation to the next, with zero tax penalty for the wealthy. Our feelings about race are so deeply ingrained, they are sometimes difficult to recognize. We all judge each other every day based on the most superficial information. We need to recognize bigotry in ourselves so we can all move forward.

My hope is that racism in this country will become a war of attrition, just like the war against homophobia. Maybe all we really need to do now is wait for one more generation of really fucked-up white people to get out of the way.

Catherine Irwin plays in the band Freakwater and under her own name. She has recently been driven fully around the bend by a series of tiresome First World problems regarding the proper recycling of organic yogurt containers, a possible slow leak in her car’s air conditioning system with its implicit ecological ramifications, and the cheap, unethically sourced dog food she has been buying. She feels like that damn butterfly in the Amazon.