Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

A Lesson in Racism's Lingering Effects

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

A Lesson in Racism's Lingering Effects

Article excerpt

You might recall that the 2006 Republican primary to pick a nominee for an open congressional seat was eventually won by first- time candidate Vern Buchanan.

But do you remember his campaign being aided by a racial gaffe committed by one of his fellow-Republican opponents?

Tramm Hudson, a local banker and former Army officer, had told an audience crowd about an Army training exercise where he had to get his men to ford a deep river in Panama. What might have been a good story went awry when he made a clumsy racial generalization as he explained the difficulty of the task.

"I grew up in Alabama. I understand, uh, I know from experience that blacks are not the greatest swimmers or may not even know how to swim," Hudson said.

He later spent a lot of energy apologizing for the overblown generalization. And Buchanan jumped all over him.

"I am appalled by Tramm's insensitive racial remarks and glad that he apologized," Buchanan insisted then. "However, an apology doesn't change the reality of a person's beliefs..."

But Hudson wasn't really suffering from a belief that no black people can swim, or that no black people swim well. Though he said it wrong, he was referring to something that had been important for him to know, a statistically well-supported fact: Many black people from the South were long excluded from pools and popular swimming spots by the white racists who ran things and, for generations, many never learned to swim. To keep their kids safe near water, many black adults taught them to fear it.

The good news is that, by 2006, the South had changed to the point that public racism by white candidates, once required and routine, had gone out of style to the point that even a well-meant but clumsy racial generalization about swimming skills had become an embarrassment and fodder for attack ads.

Progress!

I thought about Hudson's verbal fall into the rhetorical river when I read a Herald-Tribune story this past weekend about Sarasota County Commissioner Carolyn Mason and her ongoing efforts to overcome her powerful fear of water.

I wish her well at that. The water's not fine when you fear it. …

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