The little girl has just started school at one of those institutions that opened to preserve segregation, a private academy that once stood as a reminder of Southern resistance to federal courts. But her attendance there doesn’t signal her parents’ allegiance to an old social order.
The little girl, who is white, plays frequently with my little brown-skinned daughter and rocks my daughter’s chocolate-brown dolls. The two girls eat together, swim together, and argue over toys and my mother’s lap. Their friendship may cool as they grow older, but they’ve formed a bond that will always help to inform their judgments about people who look a little different.
The nation has progressed in myriad ways since those old segregated academies sprang up in the Deep South, testimony to the fear and hostility that characterized race relations not just there but around the country. Not so long ago, the term “America’s golden girl” would have surely meant a young white celebrity, perhaps blond and freckled.
These days, America celebrates an Olympic team of teenage gymnasts that includes a Jewish captain, a black girl, and a girl whose ancestry is black and Japanese. They are all golden, with the medals to prove it.
They represent a nation that can be moved to champion its growing diversity even as it struggles to accommodate itself to demographic change.
I reminded myself of that last week as I read the awful news about a mass murder at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. Wade Michael Page, the apparent shooter, was steeped in the racial hatred of right-wing extremists who preach “white power.” He founded a band that took its place on the skinhead music scene, where lyrics espousing violence and racial supremacy are commonplace.
Rather than usher in an era of “post-racial” harmony, the election of President Barack Obama seems to have done just the opposite: It provoked a hysterical backlash among those fearful and xenophobic whites who believe they are losing “their” country. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has documented explosive growth in white supremacist and anti-government organizations since Obama’s inauguration.
“The dramatic expansion of the radical right is the result of our country’s changing racial demographics, the increased pace of globalization and our economic woes. For many extremists, President Obama is the new symbol of all that’s wrong with the country, ” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the center.