Wangs Laundry, a “Western”-themed storefront at Great America theme park. (Rick Perlstein)
Even in a country that suffers from an official cult of optimism, where the dominant response to revelations that the entire nation is being spied upon is “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you don’t have anything to hide,” where racism is supposed to be over because we’ve elected a black president even if the number of death threats against him reportedly dwarf those against previous presidents, it can useful to count victories, to record how far we have come—if only for the sake of our sanity.
A friend of mine recently showed me a page of a book she dug up, an ancient Rand-McNally Grammar School Geography from 1911. With voice-of-God confidence, it defines the various “races.” Indians? “Few of them have ever attained the stage of civilization. Agriculture and the arts are rudimentary, and letters and science are generally wanting.” (There is a regional slur, too: “South of the United States the majority of the population are still of Indian blood.”) Then the “Black or Ethiopan Race”—those words in bold. “The head is long and narrow, with projecting jaws” (projecting jaws?). “Among them are found the lowest savages; some have advanced [advanced!] to barbarism; but no people of the black race ever became civilized without help from some other race.”
Study questions: “Look among your acquaintances for persons who display, in the greatest perfection, one or more of the characteristics of the Caucasian race. What colors of hair and eyes are generally found in the same person? Which is more common, straight or wavy hair? What color of hair is most common. Did you ever see a Chinaman? Describe him…”
Did “you” ever see a Chinaman? If you are reading the book you are are, definitionally, not a Chinaman.
It’s an old book, granted. But not innocent because of that fact: it is, after all, a grammar school book, which means that it shaped the world-pictures of grownups for generations later—for instance, the respondents to a Newsweek poll around the time of the 1963 March on Washington. “I don’t like to touch them,” one said. “It just makes me squeamish.” “It’s the idea of rubbing up against them,” said another. “It won’t rub off, but I don’t feel right either.” Majorities thought black people “laugh a lot,” tend to have less ambition” and “smell different.” When I was a kid my parents had a book in their library called Training You to Train Your Dog (1965). It observed that everyone knew people with dark skin shared an “excitable nature.” QED.: “If this be true, there is no reason why color of coat and pigmentation should not affect dogs as well.”