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Olbermann: Beware fear's racist temptation

In a Special Comment, Keith Olbermann explores the relationship between fear and racism and encourages Americans who are distressed about the nation's future to avoid political groups that appeal to their less noble inclinations.

Finally tonight, as promised, a Special Comment on this Presidents' Day celebrating George Washington, and the Founding Fathers he represents and Abraham Lincoln, and the Emancipation he represents.

And I think, having now been one for 51 years, I am permitted to say I believe prejudice and discrimination still sit, defeated, dormant, or virulent, somewhere in the soul of each white man in this country.

Sixty three years after Jackie Robinson and 56 after Brown vs. Board of Education and 46 after the Civil Rights Act and a year-and-a-half after the presidential election this is not a popular thing to say.

This is also not a thing that should be true even as a vestige of our sad past. But it is. Discrimination is still all around us in so many ways, openly re-directed towards immigrants who are doing nothing more than following the path that brought my recent ancestors here and probably yours, too or focused on gays predicated on a mumbo-jumbo of biblical misinterpretations or leeching out still against black people in things like the Tea Party movement.

I think the progress we have made in the last 60 years in this country has been measurable and good. But I think discrimination has been tamed, not eradicated. For, our society still emphasIzes our differences as much as our similarities.

We may be 63 years from Jackie Robinson but we are not yet 63 days from a man going on national radio and telling us the president of the United States was elected only because of the color of his skin.

Discrimination, I've always thought, is a perversion of one of the most necessary instincts of survival. As a child, put your hand on a red hot stove and you'll quickly learn to discriminate against red hot stoves.

But if at that age you are also told you need to beware of black people and you will spend your life having to fight against wiring created in your brain for no reason than to reflect someone else's prejudice. And it need not even be that related to trauma. The other night in the hospital my father was telling me about seeing Satchel Paige pitch.

At Yankee Stadium this was. The time was about 1941 and the team was the New York Black Yankees. And my father shook his head in amazement. "It never occurred to me, it never occurred to anybody I knew, that he couldn't play for the other Yankees," he said. "We just assumed he didn't want to. That none of them wanted to."

These thoughts still linger in our lives, still actively passed to some of us by people who are not like my father, who never questioned their own upbringing or parents or school or world. That older, brutal, prejudiced-with-impugnity world which reappears every day like Brigadoon with virulence as in Don Imus's infamous remarks; sometimes with the utter arrogant tone-deafness of John Mayer's Playboy interview; sometimes with a kind of poorly informed benign phrase like Harry Reid's comment about "dialect;" sometimes with the lunkheadedness of surprise that nobody is screaming "Emm-effer, I want more iced tea" at a Harlem restaurant.

But it's still there. I'm not black, so I can't say for sure, but my guess is the reverse feeling still exists, too — the same doubt and nagging distrust, only with the arrow pointing the opposite way.

And I guess it's still there too among Hispanics and Asians and every other self-identifying group, because this country, since the Civil War, has not only become ever-increasingly great not merely for dismantling the formalized racism of our first 200 years on this continent, but because we have been dismantling a million years of not fully trusting the guys in the next cave because they are, somehow, different.

This all still lingers about us, all of us, whether we see it or not. And since it's no longer fashionable or acceptable, it oozes out around the edges and usually those who speak it don't even realize that as good as their intent might be, as improved as their attitudes might be from where they used to be, or where their parents used to be, or where America used to be — it's still racism.

Thus it has become fashionable —sometimes psychologically necessary — that when some of us express it we have to put it in code, or dress it up, or provide a rationalization to ourselves for it that this has nothing to do with race or prejudice, the man's a Socialist and he's bent on destroying the country and he was only elected by people who can't speak English.

Or was it: he was only elected by guilty whites. The rationalizations of the racists are too many and too contradictory for the rest of us to keep them straight.

The whole of the "anger at government" movement is predicated on this. Times are tough, the future is confusing, the threat from those who would dismantle our way of life is real (as if we weren't to some extent doing it for them). And the president is black. But you can't come out and say that's why you are scared.

Say that, and in all but the lifeless fringes of our society, you are an outcast. And so this is where the euphemisms come in. Your taxes haven't gone up, the budget deficit is from the last administration's adventurer's war, Grandma is much more likely to be death-paneled by your insurance company, and a Socialist president would be one who tried to buy as many voters as possible with tax cuts.

But facts don't matter when you're looking for an excuse to say you hate this president (but not because he's black). Anything you can say out loud without your family and friends bursting into laughter at you, will do. And this is where the Tea Parties come in.

I know I've taken a lot of heat for emphasizing a particular phrase which originated at a Free rally a year ago by a Tea Partier! And I know phrases like "Tea Klux Klan" are incendiary and I know I use them in part because I'm angry that at so late a date we still have to bat back that racial uneasiness which envelops us all.

And I know, if I could listen only to Lincoln on this of all days about the better angels of our nature, I'd know that what we're seeing at the Tea Parties is, at its base people who are afraid. Terribly, painfully, cripplingly, blindingly, afraid.

But let me ask all of you who attend these things: How many black faces do you see at these events? How many Hispanics? Asians? Gays? Where are these people? Surely there must be blacks who think they're being bled by taxation. Surely there must be Hispanics who think the government should've let the auto industry fail. Surely there must be people of all colors and creeds who believe in cultural literacy tests and speaking English.

Where are they? Where are they? Do you suppose they agree with you but they have just chosen to attend their own separate meetings? That they are not at your Tea Party because they have a Tea Party of their own to go to? Are you thinking like my father did about Satchel Paige and the black Yankees? That they want this? My father had an excuse for that. He was 12-years-old. It was 1941. Are you of the Tea Party 12-years-old? For you, is it 1941?

You're scared and you're in a world that has changed in a million ways and the most obvious one of them is something unforseeable just a decade ago — a black president. And yet you are also in a world, inherited, installed, by generations that knew only fear and brutality and prejudice and difference and suspicion. The generations have gone but the suspicion lingers on.

Not all of our heritage is honorable. Not all the decisions of the founding fathers were noble. Not very many of the founding fathers were evolved enough to believe that black people were actually people. The Founding Fathers thought they were and fought hard to make sure they would always remain slaves.

Fear is a terrible thing. So is prejudice. And racism. And progress towards the removal of any evil produces the inevitable backlash. The Civil War was not followed by desegregation but by Jim Crow, and the Klan.

The Civil Rights legislation of the '60s was not followed by peace but by George Wallace and anti-busing overt racism. Why should the election of a black president be without a backlash?

But recognize what this backlash is, and you can free yourself of this movement built of inherited fears, and of echoes of 1963 or 1873. Look at who is leading you and why and look past the blustery self-justifications and see the fear — the unspoken, inchoate fear of those who are different.

If you believe there is merit to your political argument, fine. But ask yourself when you next go to a Tea Party rally, or watch one on television, or listen to a politician or a commentator praise these things or merely treat them as if it was just a coincidence that they are virtually segregated.

Ask yourself: Where are the black faces? Who am I marching with?  What are we afraid of? And if it really is only a president's policy and not his skin. Ask yourself one final question: Why are you surrounded by the largest crowd you'll ever again see in your life that consists of nothing but people who look exactly like you?