When I decided I wanted to address the issue of racism in Roses Are White, the third Wolf Dasher novel, I knew the theme would not be dated by the time the book came out. The murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, convinced me that, all protestations to the contrary, we were not living in a post-racism age. Indeed, that’s one of the things I wanted to touch on in the novel.
But I couldn’t have known that the very week I would release the book, racism would be front and center in the news again. This time, it was Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling telling his non-white girlfriend not to bring black people to his games. Never mind that most of his players — the guys attempting to bring him an NBA championship — are black.
The league stepped in and banned Sterling for life. Commissioner Adam Silver is trying to force Sterling to sell the team. Silver and the NBA were roundly praised for their actions.
But at the same time, we also heard a lot of criticism from other sources that, as righteous as Silver’s actions were, they were awfully late to the party. Sterling has been investigated in the past for bigotry and discrimination. Why was the NBA only now getting up in arms?
It’s a fair criticism, and it speaks to the larger discussion about racism we’re still not willing to have in the U.S. Slavery was abolished in the Civil War. School segregation was “officially” ended in the 1950’s. The Civil Rights Act was established in 1964. The battle against racism is allegedly over.
But it isn’t.
If it were, owners of sports teams that employ African-Americans wouldn’t be telling their girlfriends not to bring black people to the games. Cliven Bundy wouldn’t claim The Negro put himself in jail and was better off under slavery. George Zimmerman wouldn’t think an African-American kid in a hoodie walking through a nice neighborhood was suspicious.
Fifty years down the road, things are better than when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Things are better now than when the Ku Klux Klan operated openly in the South and quite literally got away with murder. We don’t have separate drinking fountains, lunch counters, and bathrooms anymore.
But the Cliven Bundys of the U.S. still hold their bigoted opinions. The Donald Sterlings still believe it’s okay for African-Americans to work for them but not associate with them socially. And sometimes this hatred explodes in real violence.
Like in 1998, when James Byrd, Jr. was dragged to death by white supremacists in Texas.
Or in 2012, when Michael Dunn shot at three black kids in a Dodge Durango, killing one of them, because they were playing what he called “thug music” too loud.
Or in 2013, when Joe Rickey Hundley, tired of listening to a 19-month-old toddler crying on a flight from Minneapolis to Atlanta, slapped the child after yelling at the mother, “Shut that [n-word] baby up!”
And of course, those are just recent anti-African-American incidents. They don’t include events like the 2006 murder of Matthew Shepard, who was effectively crucified for being gay, or the Palm Sunday shooting just a few weeks ago at a Jewish Community Center in Kansas City by Frazier Glenn Cross, a lifelong anti-Semite.
We are not living in a post-racism America. Bigotry, hatred, and xenophobia still infest the American Subconscious. They are often quieter now. They move like cockroaches through the walls of our society, hiding from the scrutiny of the majority of people, who detest them. But like those roaches, they occasionally wander out into the light, showing us their ugliness and spreading their pestilence.
We cannot pretend they are not there. We cannot suggest they are isolated in only a few rundown places that are not typical of our society.
We must hire an exterminator. And the only poison that kills this pest is exposure. We have to talk about this. We have to acknowledge racism still exists, still flourishes, and resolve to fight it.
So I’m not done talking/writing about this. Over the next few weeks, I plan to blog about the themes and events in Roses Are White, and how, despite them being fictional, they are grounded in the world in which we live. Since I published the first Wolf Dasher novel in 2011, Wolf has been living and working in a milieu that holds a mirror up to our own.
I would rather not write about something as ugly as racism. But unless we talk about these problems, they don’t go away. They fester.
It’s been 50 years. It’s time to stop riding on the laurels of the Civil Rights Act and not just acknowledge we still have work to do. It’s also time to roll up our sleeves and get to it.