Thursday, 11 October 2012

Product of his environment...

J. William Fulbright was many great things--Rhodes Scholar, University of Arkansas President, Congressman for three decades, inspiring orator, author of insightful political books--but he was also a racist.  He objected to integrating Arkansas schools, a position he later said was in line with the wishes of his constituents.  President Johnson claimed that Fulbright's opposition to the Vietnam War was because 'he didn't think the yellow man cared about freedom as much as the white man' did.  There are other little anecdotes, but at the end of the day, Fulbright was a paradox of a man, supporting international goodwill and culture learning abroad but still holding onto his segregationist Jim Crow way of thinking at home.

This morning I noticed a story about another racist remark coming from Arkansas (
Jon Hubbard, a state representative, was quoted as saying that African-Americans were better off living in the U.S. than they would have been in Africa, had slavery never happened.

“Slavery was cruel, but as a result of slavery, we have African-Americans living in this country today who are living here in situations that are probably much better to endure than if they were living in Sub-Saharan Africa. If you had the choice knowing the lifestyle of people living in Africa and knowing the lifestyle of people living in the United States, which would you choose? Pure and simple.” (quoted in article above)

As the article summarises it, Hubbard's position seems to be that slavery was a 'blessing in disguise' (a phrase he actually used in his 2010 book, apparently).  We shouldn't even give his remarks the dignity of engaging with them--I'll leave it there and move on with my main point.

Throughout the PhD research experience, I've been grappling with what to say about Senator Fulbright.  On the one hand, my research is all about his most enduring legacy--the best part of him, the internationalist dove and academic.  On the other hand, it's not very responsible to focus on the good and ignore any bad qualities the man had.  He was human, after all.  I considered shifting away from him, making my research project more about the exchange program and less about the man.  In practice, that left my work looking incomplete--I just can't ignore the man when discussing his namesake.

People often excuse the racist remarks of older generations by saying that they were products of their environment.  "Things were different back then..." we're told.  To some extent, I can agree with that--my grandparents said cringe-worthy things, too.  But then I read about people like Jon Hubbard, a man who actually got elected to public office by Arkansans, saying something so unbelievably offensive...There are other offensive Arkansan politicians making headlines, too, like Charlie Fuqua who supports using the death penalty against rebellious children and thinks that Muslims should be deported (not sure where he thinks American Muslims should be sent, but I honestly can't be bothered to spend too much time thinking about this ridiculous man's views).

I'm concerned that the 'environment' that shaped Fulbright's racist views wasn't the time period, but the state of Arkansas (and the region in general).  These may be isolated incidents, and I'm not saying that Arkansans are racist (I was born there, too, after all) but it just seems like you never hear about a representative from Rhode Island saying anything offensive about African-Americans.

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