Saturday, April 4, 2009

Not A Racist Anymore

Elwin Wilson a 72 year old man from South Carolina is seeking forgiveness for his racist actions over the long course of his life. He has harassed and insulted black people for many years of his life. During the civil rights movement, he was a part of groups trying to break up lunch counter sit ins and other nonviolent protests. He burned crosses, hung nooses and has thrown things at black people. In 1961, during the freedom rides, Mr. Wilson brutally beat a black man at a bus stop. However in the late 70’s and eighties, Mr. Wilson worked with black people and even attended a former all black college. His anger had died down somewhat but that hate was always lurking underneath he says. It was not uncommon for Mr. Wilson to insult and harass black people as late as 1999. When asked about where his racist views came from in the first place; he says that it must have been the people he hung around with; it was like a sport Mr Wilson said. According to Mr. Wilson, it wasn’t his parents doing; they treated everyone equal he says.

Now at age 72 and rather sick, Mr. Wilson says that his hate has all gone away, and he feels remorse about actions over the years. Mr. Wilson cites religion as a major factor in his change of thinking. It was after the presidential inauguration that Mr. Wilson decided to start apologizing to those he has insulted or hurt. So Since January Mr. Wilson has been spending much time publicly and personally apologizing to all those people. Included in this group is the man that he beat in 1961. The man that Mr. Wilson beat is civil right leader John Lewis who is currently a congressman from Georgia. Many have met with and accepted his apologies including Mr. Lewis. There are some that preferred not to and question his motives for apologizing.

Mr. Wilson became a racist during the 1960’s and events of the civil rights movement. He lived in an area of the country that was clearly divided along two lines at that time. He got so caught up with racism and hate of that time period; it became a part of his belief system. Today society has changed a great deal and so has Mr. Wilson. Racism is embedded in the structure of our society and we have a long way to go before it is gone. While Mr. Wilson cites religion has a reason for changing his views. But, if the society and culture of where Mr Wilson lived helped to create his racist attitudes, then it may have played an important role in changing his mind about it as well.
photo of Wilson apologizing to Rep. Lewis from


  1. The title of this post actually made me laugh out loud. The sociology of aging course would be a good tool to have for the analyzing of article. However, this man is the epitome of the "elite upper class white american dominant male". Im not exactly sure how to phrase it but Im sure that somewhere aloing the line it is a privileage of the elite position to be able to revoke their claims/judgements/feelings at any point in time. Privileage to see, privileage to delete at will? I wonder what other factors played into his decision to "not be racist anymore". Was it hard to for him to appoligize to the man he beat all those years ago? That exact man that is now a congressman in georgia? He claims that he got caught up in the racism and hate of that time period, but also claims that his parents did not have the same views on race and ethnicity as he did. How did the sociaolization within his own insitiution of family play a role in how he treats/treated those of color?

  2. The sentence that struck me was the reason that Mr. Wilson used to explain his action “it must have been the people he hung around with” and “it was like a support”.

    I know we have to look at the social background to understand individual actions. Mr. Wilson lived at the time and place that conflict around racism had existed for a long time. Like the article says “it [racism] became a part of his belief system.” Combine the history of slavery, civil rights movements, and equal rights movements, I totally agree with Shopaholic that the society and culture have played an important role in changing Mr. Wilson’s mind as well as they helped creating his racist attitudes.

    Human beings are social animals; our beliefs and actions are socialized by the environment. As the society changes constantly through history, we change with the society.

  3. I agree with Ever. But I think it's more than society shaping our beliefs and values. Mr. Wilson grew up in a time when it was socially acceptable to behave in an outright racist manner. Today it is no longer tolerated behavior; it is now considered deviant. As a way to enforce these new social norms on overt racism, laws are in place to ensure the proper expected behavior.

  4. This man has internalized the many false stereotypes about non-whites and his entire life has been influenced by these thoughts (and actions). As a result, other people's lives have been influenced because of what he thought and did. Now he wants to apologize for his past actions? Does he not realize that he has contributed, no matter how small, to discrimination in every aspect of society? Because of people like him, racism has prevailed and still exists today through his (and many others') political choices, through socializing his children/family, and through perpetuating non-white's perceptions about themselves as "different" or even inferior. Mr. Wilson has individually apologized to the people he remembers being violent towards, but he fails to realize his social impact. He sees himself as one person, one set of beliefs that he can rescind and erase, not as one part of a larger whole that has sustained racism, prejudice, and discrimination throughout American history.

  5. what is interesting is that Mr. Wilsons son comments in the article that growing up with his dads behavior was difficult. He felt ashamed and embarassed. So somehow Mr. Wilson did not pass on his racist views to his son.

  6. @conflicted theorist--expressions of overt racism have not become as deviant as you think (and as many of us may hope). Read the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner any time there is an article that even mentions Alaska Natives and you will be shocked to see how commonplace overt racist expressions are. Name calling, negative stereotyping, false labeling, scapegoating, calls for extremist activism--it's all there, nearly every week. The FDNM staff only rarely delete objectionable posts, even when there are calls for violence against Native people. Also, think again about the Civil Rights Era, and consider how positionality frames whether an act is labeled as deviant. For white supremacists, violence against people of color was not deviant then, nor is it deviant today. But for civil rights activists, the federal administration, and the majority of the American public, the violence we saw perpetrated against black people on TV was shocking and considered very deviant. In fact, it was when "ordinary" white Americans saw the raw, uncensored news footage of black church ladies being firehosed and police dogs attacking black girls as they were trying to go to school, that the deviancy of these acts was understood and revolution began.

  7. This post reminds me of a discussion in one of my sociology classes last semester, essentially arguing about whether or not highly racist ideas are "deviant" or whether they are just opinions being expressed by "normal" people (although i hate that word, i think everyone understands what i mean). Essentially we were trying to decide if there was anything special that made these people racist or whether it was just certain social opportunities and circumstances that led to such deeply held beliefs. It supports the more socialized perspective when looking at how the man featured in this article "was" very racist and yet his son was not-different social situations, different social influences.
    Here's what I also found interesting in this article. From what I can gather, Mr. Wilson was participating in racist behaviors that were consistent with those of his peer group at the time. Hence, no real feelings of dissonance between him and his cohorts. Aging, however, as well as religion, seem to be potentially aggravating factors to these racist beliefs he has "given up". As people age in our society, it is encouraged socially that we reflect on our past actions and our lives. Many mainstream religions also favor correction of past misdeeds by making amends before death. It doesn't seem to be coincidence, in my mind, that age, religion and a change in racist ideology all converge at one point in his life. It seems, to me, that all of these variables support change when looking at his story from a sociological perspective.

  8. When you flip over the racism around from White being racist to a Black or Native person to Black / Native against White person, it wouldn't be any different.

    I know many Negro's who are racist to white people, and I know many Natives who are racist to white people. Some would think that it is a priveledge to be able to say horrid things about white people and expect you to go along with it. It has become a social norm to say derogatory things about other races who are lower than yours. Question is.. who is lower than you?

    Each society has a heirarchy they live in. Each culture has their classes, and within itself, the classes fight to be one upper than the other.

  9. I agree with Sine. The outright racist behavior that is now considered “deviant” as so mentioned by conflicted, is merely superficially considered deviant. Overt racism is still accepted. If it weren’t, we would not continue to see racist images everywhere – in the media, on TV, in newspapers, in political cartoons, even in everyday conversations. Although there was a time where people made a conscious effort to be “PC” and refrain from common use of racial stereotypes, it seems as if we, as a society, have almost moved backwards in time regarding this subject. People, and I speak generally, seem to feel that since racism is no longer a problem, that “today [racism] is no longer tolerated behavior,” that it is alright to go back to using racial slurs and jokes, because we all know they’re not true. Everybody knows they’re wrong, that’s why they’re funny, and we should get over ourselves and not be so sensitive. I do not know how many times I have heard racist jokes and, after mentioning their inappropriateness and the negative impact these types of comments have, I am told to relax, get over myself, to not be so sensitive. This type of attitude angers me. We’ve all been socialized to know that racism and prejudice are wrong, and yet we (as a society, I do not speak for we as individuals) do little to combat its daily perpetuation. Socialization is important; no one argues that it is not. But it is not until we eradicate the formerly overt racism that has now transformed into a subtle prejudice that continues to pervade our institutions can we expect any real change to take place.

    Another interesting point I wanted to make about socialization after reading the article and peoples’ comments about Mr. Wilson’s son was that I thought it was interesting that the point was made that Mr. Wilson’s son was so very embarrassed about his father’s behavior. Though that didn’t initially strike me as unusual, after careful thought, I began to change my mind. There are those that argue, and few would wholeheartedly disagree, that the family is essential, in fact the first agent, in one’s socialization. They have the most access to you, and influence your development much more than most, and can have a direct effect on how you end up. I say can because this is not 100% certain. (If anyone knows me and my parents, they understand why I say this.) So what happened in this case? I thought it was especially interesting that the son did not end up with the same racist views seeing as how he was socialized in a home with an overtly, actively racist father, in the South, an area of the country which tends to perpetuate incorrect racial stereotypes of African-Americans, among other groups. Either he is not being entirely truthful about his opinions regarding racism, or he has overcome impressive odds to be an open-minded individual. Either way, I thought it was worth noting…

    Lastly, I want to address NuttyHaze’s comment regarding this topic. Firstly, I am confused as to exactly what is being said. Are you saying that the hierarchy has been flipped, and now African-Americans and Natives are at the top and have the privilege of making derogatory comments about White people? Who is lower than you is not a question I think we should be asking. I would agree that some underprivileged groups think it’s okay to make derogatory comments about white people because they feel as if they have earned it, in a way. These minority groups feel that they have suffered enough at the hands of the privileged few, and that the privileged should know what it feels like to be the subject of irrational anger, hate, and ridicule. I feel that this is just propagating the problem – a sense of inequality – a feeling of who is better and who isn’t. Instead we all need to find a common ground and realize that race is socially constructed, and nobody is better than anybody else. And then I want world peace.

    But in all seriousness, I do think it is incredibly important to address one glaring mistake in NuttyHaze’s comment. I do not understand how it is possible to have reached a 400 level class, in the discipline of Sociology no less, and continue refer to African-American/Black people as Negroes. This epithet has long since been deemed unacceptable as a word to refer to this, albeit socially constructed, group of people, and I take great offense to its usage. Please be a little more aware of what you are saying before addressing a group of people who, better than most, will realize how distasteful the use of this word is.

  10. Thanks Sociologig, I was about to comment on the word "Negro" as I was scanning comments but I think you have addressed it most respectfully.
    Growing up in the deep south seems to be a whole different world. It is as if some of the things we learn about the changes in society as far as racism and discrimination never made it there.
    In May when my high school has prom this year, there will be a prom for the blacks one week and another for the whites on a different week at the school.
    My bestfriend, a white girl father said that I was the only nigger that could ever set foot in his house. Addressing "Sociologig comments about the son-My friends dad was supposedly the grand wizard of the local KKK. However, she had a very friendly mother who treated me with the same respect as the other children. She hugged me and didn't treat me as if my blackness would rub off on her and she would catch a disease. Perhaps even at a young age we are capable of deciding what in society we want to be a part of and what we don't even if we don't have the adequate resources to do that. In the article the wife told the husband that blacks were going to be in heaven. Perhaps she wasn't a racist and there son gear more towards her thoughts and action. Growing up where I did (on a plantation) I am suprised that I am not a racist! It was my internalchoice not to be, not society's.
    I personally don't think that Mr. Wilson's hatred is "all gone." I believe that the fear of dying coupled with his wife comment about blacks in heaven but a little scare in him. So if we say that Mr. Wilson's hatred and actions were induced by society and that they changed with society and we agree that racism and hatred still exists in sociey are we then to conclude that Mr. Wilson hate cannot all be gone away?

  11. Drama mama: your experience is very interesting and eye-opening. The theory that states that when one is socialized in an environment that fosters racist, sexist, etc sentiments and actions, that that person will internalize these ideals runs contrary to your experience with your friend's mother. So, I'm wondering, how do some, such as your friend's mother, reject the majority's ideology?

    (I really don't know, that's why I'm asking!)


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