Days before the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture near the Washington Monument, a couple of bizarre political developments illustrated why we Americans need it.
And I do mean all Americans. “Even if you think this isn’t your story,” as the museum’s director Lonnie G. Bunch III recently told the Washington Post, “it is.”
That’s a reasonable response to the cynical wags and trolls who pepper Internet comment threads with sarcastic objections like, “I thought segregation was over” and “When are we going to have a museum for white people?”
We’ve got ’em, pal. But having visited museums of various sorts across this great land of ours, I am happy to report that the contributions made by Americans of color to our national narrative are increasingly included. Diversity is in. Conscientious curators like Bunch, former head of the Chicago Historical Society, have made a difference.
Yet too many of us Americans still harbor woefully incomplete views of life on the other side of our racial divide.
Take, for example, the comments that last week cost Kathy Miller her position as volunteer chairwoman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in northeastern Ohio’s Mahoning County.
Problems emerged after a videotaped interview with Britain’s Guardian in which she was asked whether Trump’s candidacy has encouraged a “just-below-the-surface” racism to surface.
“I don’t think there was any racism until Obama got elected,” Miller replied. “We never had problems like this. You know, I’m in the real estate industry. There’s none.”
Say what? This takes the usual Republican “Blame Obama First” strategy to a new low. Being in real estate, for example, surely she has heard of “redlining,” the denial of conventional mortgages and insurance to homes in predominately black zip codes.
Or she could google up the words “panic peddling” or “blockbusting” that stirred white flight and destabilized neighborhoods to turn racial anxieties into big profits.
Miller seemed to think opportunities and obstacles across racial lines are all equal now. “If you’re black and you haven’t been successful in the last 50 years, it’s your own fault,” she said. “You’ve had every opportunity, it was given to you.”
“You’ve had the same schools everybody else went to,” she said. “You had benefits to go to college that white kids didn’t have. You had all the advantages and didn’t take advantage of it. It’s not our fault, certainly.”
Even so, we’ve got a long way to go before we can say blacks nationwide have “the same schools” or college opportunities as everybody else.
Does this put Miller into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” – where she said “half” of Trump’s supporters belong for their racism, sexism and so forth?
I certainly wouldn’t call Miller “irredeemable,” which I think was Clinton’s most unfortunate word in that controversial statement. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., among others, memorably preached that we all can be redeemed from our worst impulses if we have access to good information.
Yet if Miller thinks blacks have made plenty of progress, her candidate Trump seems to think we haven’t made any. He still preaches an oddly back-handed invitation to black voters, mostly in front of white audiences: “What the hell do you have to lose?”
Last Tuesday, he went a step further. He told a North Carolina crowd that “our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they’ve ever been in before. Ever, ever, ever!”
Ever? As Rep. John Lewis, as Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon, responded to MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell: “Is he talking about worse than slavery? Worse than the system of segregation and racial discrimination – when we couldn’t take a seat at the lunch counter and be served? Worse than being denied the right to register to vote, to participate in the democratic process and live in certain neighborhoods and communities?”
With apologies for her “inappropriate” comments, Kathy Miller resigned her chairmanship and her eligibility to be an elector in the Electoral College. She was replaced by Tracey Winbush, a Youngstown radio talk show host who also happens to be an African-American. During the primaries, she was a fierce Trump critic. Now, she says, that’s history – the sort, I presume, that she would rather forget.
Reach Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.