Henry Rollins: We Teach Our Kids to Be Racist

Henry Rollins: We Teach Our Kids to Be Racist
Photo by Heidi May

[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.]

On Jan. 19, some of us took a moment to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You’re probably well aware of the multidecade struggle to have “MLK Day” recognized as a federal holiday and make all the states stick to it. To this day, it is still argued over. Some say there are so many people in the civil rights movement who are not being recognized, it is a travesty to award a day to only one man.

But I think MLK Day is about much more than the great man himself. It is indeed honoring people such as Medgar Evers, Clyde Kennard and countless others who risked everything.

I remember when Martin Luther King was assassinated. It was the first time I can remember ever hearing the word “assassination.” It was on television and I was with my mother in her apartment. She went berserk, yelling and crying. I was young but I remember it clearly. I knew she wasn’t mad at me, but seeing her so out of control, it was like the world was flying apart.

After Dr. King’s death, my daily experiences with other kids became scarier than they already were. I was one of only a few white kids at my school, and there was an artificial divide that we were too young to understand. How could we? It wasn’t ours. I was different, nervous and easily intimidated, a perfect go-to for teasing and whatever else.

There were times when a black kid, who would be friendly enough in class, would turn on me in the schoolyard at lunch. A push or a slap and suddenly, I was hyperventilating and trying to hold my bladder as I shook uncontrollably.

It’s real-time panic where you have absolutely no idea what will happen next. One kid starts with the first word of the chant, “Fight!” Then a loose, collective chorus, voices lining up by the second “Fight!” Then the rest: “Nigger and a white! Beat him, nigger, beat him, ’cause the white can’t fight!”

The level of confusion, anxiety and pure fear that this treatment can produce is truly awesome in its power to transform. It changed my life completely. I would wake up hours before school, unable to sleep. I would get to the classroom early to avoid the gauntlet. I learned to be as invisible as my surging hyperactivity would allow me to be. Food was hard to hold down; my nose would just start bleeding. Not a good time.

We were all young kids, cute little idiots embroiled in the ignorance of a time we had little or no understanding of. I am quite convinced that this transfer of discrimination from one generation to the next, absorbed at the same time as basic reading skills, with no sense of history or context, is one of the biggest impediments to progress in America to this day.

By the time you are old enough to know better, it is hard to get your head beyond what you have known all your life. Add 50 years to that and you might become, “Well, you know, he’s a man from a different time in America, so…” That guy. I was raised by one.

So, is there that moment of clarity where all racists and bigots in America suddenly just drop it and move on? That would be cool, right? But obviously, it’s not nearly that simple or we would have done it decades, maybe centuries ago.

Humans are dynamic creatures and come with a lot of stuff. To paraphrase the great Mark E. Smith of The Fall, “People drag their past around, it gets passed around.”

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For some, their prejudice is part of who they are. It allows them to define and distinguish themselves. A lot of racial supremacists will insist that they are not racist but just doing their best to maintain the highest levels of racial purity, for the good of everyone, of course. Your best interest is at the heart of their efforts!

I don’t think there is any line of logic you could utilize to move any of these people from their beliefs. Like Dave Chappelle’s brilliant African-American Klansman, it would be a blow to their integrity and totally unacceptable.

To the present day, there are those who think all this MLK Day business is just a damned nuisance because “there’s no more racism — look who the president is!” But it would be foolish to think that just because of the Obama administration, all is well.

I think in 1865, America could have actually put the genie back in the bottle. Post–Civil War, 13th Amendment added to the Constitution. That was a moment, perhaps the moment, had President Lincoln not been killed at the outset of his second term, when things could have gone differently.

What you got instead was Jim Crow laws and the institutionalizing and corporatizing of prejudice. Now it’s a money maker. It should be a national shame that the prison industry is so profitable.

If there weren’t so many unresolved matters yet to deal with, MLK Day would not still have so much heat attached to it, almost 50 years after Dr. King’s death. It is a reminder of the brutal, despicable conduct of our ancestors and the work yet to be done.

“Someday, things will be better” is so much low-temperature, defeatist crap. How do you think Americans who literally died for freedom and equality would react, to see so many of us still slugging this out? Can you imagine how punishing that verbal beat-down would be? We would deserve it, too.


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