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Andrew Jackson, racist and jerk, is off the twenty dollar bill. Harriet Tubman, hero, will replace him. Excellent! She deserves honor and accolades. She was one of the America’s greatest, totally worthy of admiration.
Americans have been doing a lot of self-examination lately. In the case of the twenty dollar bill, we’ve identified an ugly growth that deserves to be excised. The Jacksonectomy makes perfect sense. We’re not going to pretend he never existed, but we’re going to say, “This is someone we’re not especially proud of.” A great and healthy thing to do.
The mania for self-examination, though, can be a sickness in itself. They erect boxes around statues of Christopher Columbus. They teach kids that Thomas Jefferson was, above all else, a racist (not that racism was one of his traits or part of his legacy, but his main trait, the essential character of his legacy). They teach kids that Abraham Lincoln was a racist.
Now some deep thinkers are refusing to watch the new movie The Jungle Book because it’s based on a book written in 1894 by a British man born in India, a man who had ideas very closely aligned with all British men born in India in the 1800’s.
He was also an incredible story teller, and the movie, which is a movie about animals, looks wonderful.
My friends, I put “was a racist” into my search bar, and the third suggestion was “Jesus was a racist.”
So let’s slow this train down for a minute and figure a few things out.
First of all, no one gets any points for believing the thing that almost everyone believes. So, you were born in 1991 and are not in favor of enslaving your black friends? You get exactly zero hosannas for that. You didn’t figure out on your own that racism is wrong. You’re just going along with the crowd, and if the crowd got something right, then the crowd gets credit for that, not you.
Second of all, if you believe exactly what you’ve been taught to believe, then surely you can see that the same was true for people who lived 100 or 200 years ago. It doesn’t make them hideous people, it just makes them products of their time, just like you. They were just going along with the crowd, and if the crowd got something wrong, then the crowd should get blamed for that, not them.
Third of all, we can legitimately laud and applaud the good ideas, courageous achievements, and tireless work of people who accomplished amazing things, even if some of their ideas are bad, offensive ideas. In fact, this is what makes life possible. Go ahead an interview your five best friends. If you spend long enough with them, you’ll find out something offensive. That’s what people are like: complicated, inconsistent, a mixture of good and bad ideas.
BUT HAVE IT YOUR WAY. Let’s say that we have to strike from the books anyone who retains any taint of noxious ideas, especially racist ideas. Even if it was the same as what everyone else believed in those days; even if this person accomplished wonderful things despite being a racist. Let’s say that we’re so intensely offended by any whiff of racism that we refuse to honor anyone who’s associated with racist ideas, no matter how tangentially.
Explain to me Margaret Freaking Sanger. Because when we wanted a replacement for racist ol’ Andrew Jackson, lots of people thought Margaret Sangerwas the perfect choice.
Some of the things they say about Sanger aren’t true. That photo of her speaking at a KKK rally is photoshopped. But she did speak to KKK members as an honored guest, because
if Sanger could convince the ladies of the KKK of the benefits of birth control, then it was worth it to her . . . there was no one whom Sanger wouldn’t talk to about birth control.
She did say
The mass of Negroes particularly in the South still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase among Negroes, even more than among whites, is from that portion of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear children possibly.
And she did say:
[I]f we can train the Negro doctor at the Clinic he can go among them with enthusiasm and with knowledge, which, I believe, will have far-reaching results among the colored people. His work in my opinion should be entirely with the Negro profession and the nurses, hospital, social workers, as well as the County’s white doctors. His success will depend upon his personality and his training by us. The minister’s work is also important and also he should be trained, perhaps by the Federation as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach. We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.
I wanted to make sure I wasn’t buying into an urban legends that unfairly vilified Margaret Sanger, or made her seem worse than she actually was, so I sought out a source that admired and honored Sanger. So I got all of these quotes from an essay called “How False Narratives of Margaret Sanger Are Being Used to Shame Black Women.”
The essay makes all the usual arguments: everyone said stuff like that back then; she was no worse than anyone else; she was just so passionate, she was being pragmatic; she did so much else that was good. It makes the argument that . . . okay, yes, she was pretty damn racist, and her racism absolutely motivated her to behave the way she behaved, but abortionandbirthcontrol, so we’ll work with her on this.
So, according to an essay that sets out to defend her, this is an incontrovertible part of Margaret Sanger’s legacy:
–Working with people who enjoy torturing and murdering black people: check.
–Classifying black people as careless breeders who are likely to be unfit parents: check.
–Condescendingly plotting to lull childishly suspicious black people into a sense of security by recruiting black doctors: check.
My friends, we have a racist. By the standards set forth by every progressive American institution, we have a flagrant, unapologetic, dyed-in-the-wool racist. By current standards, we should be chiseling her name off walls, tearing her page out of biographies, throwing shoes at her statues. But we’re not.
Tell me why this is okay. Tell me why this is tolerable. Tell me why the enlightened, ultra sensitive, finely tuned society we live in — a society which cannot bear to read Huckleberry Finn or Little House on the Prairie — allows all of this:
Government authorities and other institutions have memorialized Sanger by dedicating several landmarks in her name, including a residential building on the Stony Brook University campus, a room in Wellesley College’s library, and Margaret Sanger Square in New York City’s Noho area. In 1993, the Margaret Sanger Clinic—where she provided birth control services in New York in the mid twentieth century—was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service. In 1966, Planned Parenthood began issuing its Margaret Sanger Awards annually to honor “individuals of distinction in recognition of excellence and leadership in furthering reproductive health and reproductive rights.” The artwork The Dinner Party features a place setting for Sanger. Her speech “Children’s Era”, given in 1925, is listed as #81 in American Rhetoric’s Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century (listed by rank).
It’s outrageous. Outrageous. If she wasn’t a racist down to her bones, than no one is. Margaret Sanger was thoroughly racist. Her condescending, paternalistic, genocidal, imperialist ideology was baked into every move she made, every word she wrote, every thing she achieved. Margaret Sanger has to go.