How We Rewrite History

20 May

Melissa Harris-Perry included a segment on personal character on her 5/20/12 show on MSNBC. During the segment, Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), “We say he is wonderful in character…while millions of people were being destroyed in Europe”(presumably in WWII). Harris-Perry responded by citing FDR’s record of cheating on his wife Eleanor as another stain on his record.

Honestly MHP? Is that all you got?

FDR was a racist. That’s right. He was a segregationist who believed powerfully in the inferiority of non-white people. I’d call that a character flaw, but maybe I’m too extreme.

Maybe…if you don’t count Executive Order 9066. That order, signed on February 19, 1942, sent 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps during WWII. 62% of those sent to concentration camps were natural-born U.S. citizens. They were forcibly detained for the duration of the war without evidence of espionage. Many were children.

FDR never had a change of heart. The war ended and folks were released, though without compensation for their many losses, including farms, businesses, homes and jobs.

FDR met with white Olympians after the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but famously refused to meet with African Americans on the U.S. team to avoid stirring the resentment of Southern whites. Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in ’36, complained that Hitler didn’t snub him, FDR did.

That attitude was reflected in federal policy of the FDR era. Wikipedia says of him, “Roosevelt needed the support of Southern Democrats for his New Deal programs, and he therefore decided not to push for anti-lynching legislation…though he did denounce lynchings as “a vile form of collective murder”.

Who is the more admirable character, the person who supports lynching because of racist beliefs, or someone who has the presence of mind to call it “vile” and the power to stop the practice, but does nothing for the sake of politics?

Now, I don’t normally consider Wikipedia a source of reliable facts, but do a Google search. If you’re like me, the only indication of FDR’s racism that appears among the first page or two of hits is Wikipedia and a bunch of right wing attack sites. Our side apparently has little if anything to say on the subject.

We do ourselves a disservice when we leave these pages of history to the right wing. We do everyone a disservice when we overlook episodes of overt racism on the part of the U.S. government in the hopes of serving current day political agendas, however well intentioned they may be.

This is how we rewrite history. Excusing behaviors because they were “normal” at the time shifts blame for racial injustice onto the most extreme racists. We create the false impression that racism is just a problem of bad people and ideas. But we know outspoken racists are just the shock troops of a systemically racist system for which passivity and racial liberalism of the sort that gives FDR a pass are equally necessary ingredients.

One Response to “How We Rewrite History”

  1. mary johnson May 22, 2012 at 12:16 am #

    When I first read this article, I was caught off guard. Now I feel like an idiot because I knew of the internment camps through history classes and didn’t equate the pain with the ‘great’ man that FDR was said to be.

    There is nothing great about snatching innocent people out of their homes and businesses and placing them in pens as if they were animals. Then after the war, turning them loose without compensation for the livelihoods lost or rather stolen.

    The man may have done great things for the nation to move forward. But that diminishes when it comes to his treatment of minorities.

    If you can’t meet with those that represented your country, like Jesse Owens, because of his skin color and your political welfare, the word ‘great’ isn’t deserved on him as a man.

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