America Heads Back to the Future

by Randy Shaw on April 12, 2012

What do the following recent news headlines have in common? Cuban-Americans in South Florida express outrage at baseball manager’s Ozzie Guillen’s support for Fidel Castro; a white man is not arrested despite shooting and killing an unarmed black youth in Florida; Alabama defends its law targeting racial minorities; the federal government cracks down on marijuana use in California; the Catholic Church denounces birth control; Republicans argue that tax breaks for the rich will bring national prosperity. All of these 2012 stories could have been lifted from the 1950’s, and most from the 1930’s and earlier. As millions of Americans focus on new technologies, climate change, gay marriage, enhancing infrastructure and otherwise moving the nation into the future, others are trying to return to the past.

Michael J. Fox’s Back to the Future was a giant hit, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married remains underrated. But when those films appeared in the 1980’s, most of America understood that the past not only cannot be repeated, but also in many cases should not be.

That’s not so clear today. When a baseball manager’s statements about Fidel Castro become the leading national news story, attacks on contraception are given legitimacy, and 51% of whites see race as having little or nothing to do with the events surrounding George Zimmerman’s killing of an unarmed African-American, it’s clear that a significant number of Americans prefer revisiting an idealized past than in addressing future challenges.

The Castro Confusion

The problem with trying to revisit the past is that many are confused and misinformed about the actual world they are trying to revive. Consider Castro and Cuba.

I understand why anti-Castro Cuban-Americans got mad at Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen for saying he “loved” Fidel Castro. But I wonder how many Americans know a critical fact about Cuba: Castro overthrew a dictatorship, not a democracy.

Many of those who moved to Florida after the 1959 Cuban revolution were financial beneficiaries of a brutal dictatorship that dominated Cuba for decades. We hear a lot about how Castro “stole” their land and businesses, but very little about how they obtained their wealth – and at whose expense.

Media accounts of Guillen’s comments described angry South Floridians as “victims.” Yet most of those angry at Guillen have never lived in Cuba, and their families left in the 1950’s when the brutal dictatorship they were profiting from was overthrown by a popular revolution.

Do South Floridians support a return to the days of the Bautista dictatorship in Cuba? Did they support a revolution that sought to end the brutality and cronyism of Cuba’s elite? The media did not ask these questions, as it would have muddied the purity of the anti-Castro attacks.

Florida’s Racist History

The Trayvon Martin case is getting massive coverage, but little of it reminds Americans of the long history of police abuse against African-Americans in Florida. That helps explain why a recent Gallup poll found that whites and blacks have starkly divergent views of the Martin killing. While 72% of African Americans see race as a major factor in how the shooting was handled, only 31% of whites agree. 51% of whites see race as a minor factor or not a factor at all, compared to 21% of blacks.

Our nation’s education system and political class have largely erased the brutal history of racial violence against Florida blacks from the late 19th Century through the 1970’s. It has been replaced by the message of the end of systemic racism since Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech, with Barack Obama’s election closing the case.

Recall that for most of the 20th Century, the United States media ignored racism. Sportswriters claimed that blacks did not play in Major League baseball prior to 1947 because they preferred their own leagues; after all, the major leagues never had a written rule against hiring black players.

Many white Americans yearn for the days when racism was not “an issue.” White attitudes toward George Zimmerman’s actions confirm this.

Catholic Church Back to the 1950’s

The Catholic Church held a major place in American politics in the 1950’s, and has now joined with the Republican Party in seeking a return to those days. Recent months have seen the Church much more outspoken against contraception and women’s health care, and now the longtime progressive Campaign for Human Development is denying grants to anti-poverty and immigrant and workers rights groups who have tried to build their base by aligning with gay rights organizations.

Rick Santorum made headlines by stating that John F. Kennedy’s promotion of the separation of church and state – made during the 1960 presidential campaign to address concerns that the Catholic Kennedy would turn governance over to the Vatican – made him want to “throw up.” While the media roundly condemned Santorum’s stance, his comments helped solidify him as the top conservative in the race.

With the Republican Party fully vested in erasing decades of social progress, President Obama will have an easier time than expected rallying progressives and independents to his side in November.

Randy Shaw is author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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