The Corner

No, We Do Not Live in ‘the Country of Emmett Till’

About ten years ago, I went on holiday to the south of France with my family. One evening, we walked over to the neighboring village to try a restaurant that we had been told was good. My mother, who speaks French fluently, walked in first and announced that there were six of us. Waving at the thirty or so empty tables, the owner made a joke, along the lines of, “I’ll see if I can fit you in somewhere.” Then, his face fell and he stopped laughing. “Actually,” he announced, “we’re full.” My mother laughed, awkwardly. “No, really,” he said. “We’re full.”

By this point, my cousin, who is black, had walked in. The owner had tried not to make it obvious that he was looking at her when he explained his change of heart, but he clearly was, and my mother, who is mild mannered and will do almost anything to avoid a conflict, had noticed. “Why can we not eat here?” she asked, her tone shifting After a pause and a little dissembling, the owner puffed himself up and replied, brazenly: “parce-qu’elle est noire.” Because she is black.

We left immediately, stunned. 

I grew up in a mixed-race family. My cousin lived with us for much of my childhood, and my sister and I helped to raised her if she were another sibling. In that entire time, I had never seen anything like this. My sister just married a Malaysian man, adding him and his family to the mix. We’re a motley crew. But to this day, nobody has so much as batted an eyelid at any of us. Except, that is, in that town in France. We later learned that it was a stronghold of the Front National, the nativist political party that enjoys a worrying level of support in that country.

I bring this up because whatever problems remain in America – and there are some, of course — the prospect of members of my family being subjected to such brazen racism here is vanishingly small. Certainly, there are still institutional troubles that are the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow (and this really the story); there are still some racists, although not that many; and a few people retain ugly assumptions. But things have changed. In 1963, what happened to my cousin in France would have been normal in much of the United States – and in certain parts of the country it would have been required by law. Now, such a thing would make national news. Nevertheless, to listen this week to many of the voices in our public square is to be told that little has changed in America. MSNBC’s Touré, for example, has been peddling a video he made in which he claims that “we still live in Emmett Till’s America.”

There is no other good way of putting it than to say that this is patently untrue. Segregation is over. Lynching has been eradicated. In states where they were once systematically prevented from doing so, the black voting rate is higher than the white voting rate. Interracial marriage, once disapproved of by vast majorities is now almost universally blessed. The president is black. Nowadays, America’s violence problem is somewhat racially localized: as a general rule, blacks kill blacks and whites kill whites. The notion that a jury acquitted George Zimmerman because Trayvon Martin was black is preposterous, and those who are stirring up discontent based upon this conceit are to suspected.

Adapting, the cognoscenti on the Left have started throwing around phrases like “institutional racism” or “white supremacy,” or saying, as Bill Maher did last night, that just because the KKK is not burning crosses that does not mean that racism has been eradicated. These claims strike me as ranging from being obvious straw men to being conveniently unfalsifiable. At the very least, they are witlessly hyperbolic. But even if those critics were right about the scale of the problem, it remains undeniable that black Americans in the age of Emmett Till would have given almost anything to live in a country in which the racism required decoding by the arbiters of taste. The progress has been swift and remarkable. The last thing that black Americans were worried about in the 1950s was “dog whistles.”

Now, is a black man more likely to be searched or pulled over by police? Probably. Is he more likely to receive suspicious looks on a subway? Perhaps. Is he, as the president discussed, more likely to be met with fear than a white man? Maybe. Is he more likely to grow up poor, attend bad schools, and lack the influence of a father? Certainly. But is he, like Emmett Till, likely to be killed for the crime of flirting in a country in which many states still prohibit interracial marriage? No, he is not, and the suggestion that he is is unmoored from reality. Is he, like my cousin, at risk of being barred from a restaurant “because he is black”? No, he is not. America today is unrecognisable from America half a century ago.

The Left wants a frank conversation about race. Fine, here’s my contribution: By hysterically insinuating that the country hasn’t changed dramatically, and by willfully confusing the claims that “racism still exists,” which is true, and that “racism is a vast, institutional problem,” which is not true, you are hurting not helping the cause. Stop it.



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