Early in the life of this column I shared with my readers that I was well acquainted with David Duke. He was a student at LSU when I was running the ACLU chapter in Baton Rouge, and I had to defend his civil liberties on several occasions. (I won’t insult your civic intelligence by explaining the need to protect the rights of everyone in this country, including those whose views we despise.)
Duke came to mind when I viewed Spike Lee’s engaging new film “BlacKkKlansman.” As a character, Duke plays a prominent part. Then, when the film ends with some documentary footage from last year’s alt-right rally in Charlottesville, he appears in proper person excitedly proclaiming the new era for white supremacists that Trump’s presidency has supposedly inaugurated. That promise was a pipedream for Duke and, if Lee meant to alarm us about a return to the early 1970s, when the events of his film took place, he’s a poor observer of the political scene.
Duke ran for U.S. Senator in Louisiana in 2016, contemporaneously with Trump’s campaign. He garnered just over 3 percent of the votes cast. In contrast, when he ran for governor a quarter century before, he won almost 40 percent of the total vote, including 55 percent of the white vote.
It’s not just Duke who has a gift for attracting more media attention than his importance merits. I rightly predicted that the alt-right rally in D.C. last Sunday, marking the first anniversary of Unite the Right in Charlottesville, would be a non-event. The first rally, which mobilized about 1,000 racists of varying stripes — a paltry number for a national mobilization — had proved a disaster for the white supremacist movement. Greg Johnson, editor-in-chief of the alt-right website Counter-Currents, said the attendees were subsequently “doxxed (outed on-line), injured, arrested, harassed, fired from their jobs, shunned by their families, and in one case driven to suicide. ... [T]he movement has dramatically contracted due to poor leadership and strategically unsound activism like the Charlottesville rally.” A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted Jan. 24-Feb. 22, 2018 reported that 3 percent of Americans said they supported the white-nationalist movement. Even allowing for some respondents’ reluctance to own up to their true beliefs, that percentage is hardly alarming.
Not long ago I was speaking at a party with an old leftist who insisted that nothing in this country has changed for black people. He wouldn’t give me a chance to cite any of the mountain of evidence to the contrary. The incident disturbed me for several reasons. First, it’s important to speak about such subjects as truthfully as we can. Second, it’s an insult to Medgar Evers, James Cheney, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, Viola Liuzzo, MLK, Malcolm X and the many others who gave their lives for racial justice. Third, it implies that such movements are useless, which if we believed, would assure that nothing ever will change for the better.
Change for the better means not letting ourselves get distracted. The primary racial outrage in this country is the treatment of blacks by the criminal justice system, one of the more powerful foci of “BlacKkKlansman.” Today it’s not Klansmen, but cops, prosecutors, judges and prison personnel who routinely oppress blacks, often oblivious to their own bias. That’s a story the media ought to cover continuously. Apparently, they think David Duke makes better copy. Or maybe they know it’s politically safe to criticize him.
Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.