The instant my post went up on the terribly dated and even more terribly racially stereotypical Disney film, Song of the South, the howls of protest against me started with a vengeance. Disney hinted in March that it might release the film for DVD and home video sale. I condemned the film for depicting blacks as happy-go-lucky, singing, dancing, and always compliant to whites. I did not, however, call on Disney to dump the film. The call was simply that if they release it to put a disclaimer or warning in it that the images may be offensive to some.
I made it clear that the film had some value for collectors, film buffs, lovers of African folktales, historians, and those that legitimately want to use it to educate on the peril of racial stereotypes. That didn't matter the floodgates were wide open. Some complained that keeping the film off the market was censorship. That wasn't troubling. What was troubling, though, was the blind rush by the respondents to justify, ignore, gloss over, or flat out defend negative racial typecasting of blacks.
These posts weren't on the Fox network's or a conservative website. They were on Alternet, the Huffington Post, and other liberal, progressive sites. Those that read and post on these sites are more likely young, white, and consider themselves the most socially and politically enlightened. They feverishly bash Bush policies, cheer Michael Moore, and swoon over Obama, unabashedly back environmental, gay rights, immigration reform, and indigenous struggles for land and reform in Latin America. Yet, they see absolutely no harm in racial stereotypes, especially anti-black stereotypes. Is it ignorance, confusion, racial denial, or closet bigotry? It's all of the above.
There are several compelling hints that the racial blinders are tied chokingly tight on many whites, particularly young whites. Many of those that passionately defended Song of the South on the websites said they weren't born when the film came out in 1946 or were young when they saw it in the 1970s or 1980s). One, is the wave of fraternities that in the past year have been called on the carpet for mocking black notables and rappers, holding slave auctions, minstrel shows, displaying the Confederate flag in front of frat dorms, and for their members sporting the flag on tee shirts. This was not merely a free speech issue, or a case of zany college kids making utter fools of each other. This was blatant racial slander, and should have been severely punished. But many students at the universities lambasted the criticism of the frats as political correctness gone awry.
A CNN poll last December gave another hint of the pronounced blind spot of many whites. The poll focused exclusively on black and white racial attitudes. A substantial number of blacks and whites said that race is still alive and well in the country, but they pointed the blame finger at others for being racists, not themselves. Then in the next breath, whites said that too much ado is made of race, while blacks said the opposite.
Then there was the Don Imus flap. Polls showed that the racial divide on how Imus should have been handled was alive and well. The overwhelming majority of blacks screamed loudly for Imus's scalp. A majority of whites though waffled, and cavalierly dismissed his statements as a right to free speech, or insisted that a hand slap suspension was enough.
The tom, coon, and mammy images of blacks have been a linchpin of America's shameful racial past and by no means have they been tossed into the historical dustbin. The clue to why the old racial stereotypes defy extinction is to examine they way they were heaped on blacks in the past and how they continue to be subtly and not so subtly recycled today in the endless stories on black crime, gangs, and dysfunctional families.
Over time the ancient racial stereotypes have been confirmed, validated and deepened until they have taken on a life of their own. This reinforces the belief of many whites that most blacks neatly fit the stereotypes. The exceptions such as Obama or Oprah Winfrey are eagerly embraced precisely because they are warm, cuddly, safe and non-threatening. This is not a knock at either of them. They are only the projection by many whites of how blacks should comport themselves to be acceptable.
The Uncle Remus character in Song of the South did the same and was much beloved (on the screen that is). Legions of whites wallow in these resonant anti-black stereotypes, con themselves that they're harmless, and shrug off the complaints from blacks over old racially insulting films such as Song of South as racial overreaction. That kind of talk proves that far too many whites still take smug comfort in their tightly wrapped racial blinders.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.