Dahleen Glanton: So long, Aunt Jemima. Now it’s time for some real change, not just window dressing

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Much has happened since America set out three weeks ago to become a more racially tolerant nation.

Confederate monuments have been removed. NASCAR banned the Confederate flag. Companies in Illinois and elsewhere are declaring Juneteenth a holiday. And Aunt Jemima has been fired from the high-profile position she has held for 130 years.

Some corporations are patting themselves on the back for finally doing what they should have done decades ago. They refused to change because they didn’t have to.

In the era of George Floyd, blatant racist images and behaviors suddenly have become taboo. Many companies and institutions, as well as some individuals, are scrambling to figure out what steps they can take to make themselves look like torchbearers for social justice rather than the racism enablers they’ve been.

Some aren’t looking for real solutions, though. They are seeking quick fixes that make them seem progressive but do nothing to address systemic racism, the greatest barrier to social justice.

Removing Aunt Jemima’s name and picture from bottles of syrup, giving employees a day off to celebrate Juneteenth or tossing money into the pot to help the black cause isn’t good enough. Corporations should be leading the charge to revamp economically deprived neighborhoods that have long suffered from disinvestment.

Most African Americans will shed no tears for Aunt Jemima. But we aren’t ready to embrace the Quaker Oats Co. and say job well done either.

The company always knew that Aunt Jemima was a racist stereotype. That’s why it changed her image in 1968 and again in 1989 to make her appear more socially acceptable. Yet it kept using her to make money until the social climate in America shifted and blatant racist acts fell out of fashion.

The Chicago-based company announced that it is donating $5 million over the next five years to support projects in the black community. That’s a drop in the bucket for a corporation that has made billions exploiting black people with the use of a racist image.

If the company wants to have a real impact, it should open a production facility on Chicago’s West Side and commit to hiring and training chronically unemployed residents.

Much of the soul-searching occurring in the aftermath of Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police is necessary. Some of the decisions are an honest attempt to address past wrongs and promote a better understanding of how complacency enables racism.

City officials in Jacksonville, Fla., rightfully removed a 122-year-old monument to fallen Confederate soldiers that stood in a public park in the heart of downtown. The same is true of those in Louisville, Ky.; Alexandria and Norfolk, Va.; Mobile, Ala.; Asheville, N.C.; and other cities where statues were taken down.

These fixtures had no place in public squares, forcing taxpaying African Americans to pay tribute to figures who fought to keep black people enslaved.

The Confederate flag, however, is more complex. All Americans have the right to fly the rebel flag on their front porch or pin one to the tail of their pickup truck. This is America, after all — the land of free expression.

For years, NASCAR provided Confederate flag lovers the biggest forum to gather and celebrate their heritage. Being a private company, NASCAR was under no obligation to change the way it has accommodated its most loyal fans. But officials decided that removing the flag was in the best interest of America.

By banning the Confederate flag from all events and properties, NASCAR gave its biggest supporters a direct slap in the face. It chose instead to provide a “welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone,” including its lone African American racer.

The move sent a clear message to the rebel establishment that it was no longer willing to be part of the Confederate culture that promotes division and superiority. But that’s not enough.

NASCAR remains one of the whitest sports in America. Its black driver, Bubba Wallace, can’t change that. If NASCAR wants to help move America forward, it has to actively recruit and train a diverse roster of competitors.

It’s almost embarrassing that companies in Illinois seem to have just learned that June 19 is an important date for some African Americans.

Juneteenth is a big day in Texas because it’s when blacks in that state found out that slavery had been abolished, 2 1/2 years late. It isn’t that much of a deal anywhere else.

Instead of closing banks on Friday, banking executives should put their heads together and figure out how to remove barriers that historically have kept blacks from obtaining loans to buy homes and start businesses.

It’s time for real change in America, not just window dressing. As a friend told me recently, “Brushing rotten teeth isn’t enough when you need a root canal.”



Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.


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