Thursday, July 16, 2009

Thermostats and Thermometers

The Richmond Times Dispatch is now joining the list of institutions offering apologies for past complicity in racism. The join the AMA (American Medical Association), as well as Bob Jones University in admitting that they have been guilty in perpetuating bigotry.

The RTD is confessing their role in and apologizing for supporting 'Massive Resistance' to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.

"Massive Resistance inflicted pain then. Memories remain painful. Editorial enthusiasm for a dreadful doctrine still affects attitudes toward the newspaper. Many remember. We understand. Words have consequences. Artful paragraphs promoted ugly things. Stylish sentences salted wounds. Euphemism was profligate. As members of the Fourth Estate these pages did not keep a proper distance, either. The debate is over. It is done."

"Virginia long has prided itself on its gentility. The state's political tradition has lacked firebrands such as Gene Talmadge, Orval Faubus, George Wallace, Bull Connor, Theodore Bilbo, and James K. Vardaman. Massive Resistance shattered pretensions. Although the commonwealth's campaign to evade Brown v. Board of Education did not produce the pyrotechnics seen in other states, it was directed toward the same dead end. Pride, humanity learns ever again, is not a virtue but a sin. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

"Hubris prevailed. Those who railed against oppressions visited upon sovereign states by an allegedly imperial Washington relied on government's coercive might to deny the full humanity of their fellow citizens. Massive Resistance was neither a departure nor an exception but the extension of Jim Crow and the attitudes informing it. Segregation and its associated indignities were in retreat. Massive Resistance formed a last stand."

Obviously there is more to their apology than I understand. But all things being equal, I'm not sure I understand what the follow up to the apology will be: will the editorial position of the Dispatch be one of putting more money into the schools of predominantly low income children? Will they advocate for more experienced qualified teachers in low income schools? I'm not sure what they can do to make this wrong right. Not that the apology is not appreciated. More enlightened attitudes on history should be always welcomed. It is far more appreciated than efforts to rewrite history to fit one's comfort level.

Here is one thing I do take away from their apology, however, and that is that media can shape and reflect public mores and views. I jokingly say that I was editor of our high school newspaper for about 25 minutes (long story), but the point is even then, we were taught about 'objective' journalism. Objectivity is rare. The fact is the public record doesn't go away. It is something that will be here for a very long time. The question is not just about degrees of objectivity, its how you will look and be judged 50 years from now. Its about being on the wrong side of history.

When I was a freshman in college, the president addressed us in assembly and challenged us with something I never forgot. He said, 'There's a difference between a thermostat and a thermometer. Thermometers only reflect temperature; thermostats regulate the temperature. Its up to you, to decide what you want to be!'

In 1954 the editorial board of the Richmond Times Dispatch decided to be a thermometer; more than half a century later, another generation is embarrassed and apologetic, when it comes to that decision.

Its a choice both institutions and individuals have to make.

We're not the only ones who live with the consequences.

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