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July 19, 2016
by Ruth Gordon, MA, MSW, LCSW

The Fruit is Still Strange: Racism in the United States

July 19, 2016 08:00 by Ruth Gordon, MA, MSW, LCSW

In 1938 Abel Meerpol, who was white and Jewish, wrote a poem entitled "Strange Fruit". He added music in 1939. When Billie Holiday sang it at Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, which was the first integrated club in New York, it became a passionate and disturbing anthem for the Civil Rights movement.

The “Strange Fruit” referred to the lynchings of black men in the South. Bodies were left to rot from tree limbs, thus “strange fruit”. The song is so powerful that Holiday, and others, feared reprisal from the white population when it was performed. 

Today, 77 years later, the mistrust, fear and war between races cntinues in full force. Look at the events that have transpired in the early part of July, 2016. White police officers killing harmless black men and a black man, with premeditation and intent, killing 5 white officers and wounding seven other individuals.

When President Obama was elected in 2008 there was hope that this was a sign that, as a nation, we had matured in terms of racial views. The reality is that 38% see progress; 28% believe that Obama tried and failed; 25% claim his presidency has made things worse; and, 8% are of the opinion that he has not tried.

What has endured is institutional racism. This is when bigotry causes blindness to discrimination in governmental and other organizations. Basic rights to housing, medical care, education and law are denied to individuals because they have black (or cream, or tan, or red or so-called yellow- tan) skin.

This  bigotry may be due to fear of the unfamiliar or the desire by some in the so-called Caucasian community to declare and establish themselves as superior in a superior race. Racism is about power and those who have the power do not want to relinquish their prize.

Human beings internalize trauma.  The trauma caused by slavery laid the groundwork for a relentless polarization between the races.  While the black community mistrusts so-called white solutions, the white community, consciously or unconsciously, fears a retaliation for past events and attitudes. 

It has been noted that the U.S. Constitution was founded by white men and on the belief that it was necessary for white men to gain and retain control.  The rights of Native Americans who lived here and African slaves, who were brought here by force, were ignored. It was a policy of “us” vs “the strangers” that continues to haunt some 250 years later.

In some areas it has been “common knowledge” that whoever is not Caucasian is, essentially an outsider — someone to be feared.  As the South ignored the perverted sight of multiple decomposing black bodies dangling from trees, so have many members of  the those in power managed, through cognitive dissonance, to not see or rectify discriminatory practices that do not penetrate their sensibilities.  The “other” has become “strange fruit”. Prejudice continues in spite of the efforts of individuals like Martin Luther King, Julian Bond, Cesar Chavez, and Elie Wiesel.  Those who have the power will make every effort to keep the power.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin' eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin' flesh 

(Strange Fruit)

 Mistrust of law enforcement has led to the development of 3 essential rules within the African American community:

                        1.  Avoid eye contact

                        2.  Make no sudden movements

                        3.  Speak in submissive tones

These same “rules” would apply to encounters with vicious predators in the animal kingdom. It is strange indeed. Law enforcement = savage behaviour. As yet, xenophobic principles dominate racial interaction in a vast number of communities. 

Values like mutual respect and fair-mindedness are discussed and heralded. It appears that actualizing these principles, except during times of national disaster, is nearly impossible.

One of the obstacles to a viable discussion about racism is the fact that, historically, few Caucasians have experienced serious challenges to their ingrained racial prejudice. When pushed, whites often feel that their identity is being questioned. 

The unfortunate belief that an individual is either totally racist or not at all racist prevails. This ignores the reality there are shades of racialism, i.e. it is not a “black or white” issue. A problem that is not acknowledged cannot be fixed.

All individuals are a part of the human race. That recognition may lead to a path of genuine empathy and a desire to live in a world in which there is, at least, a desire for an equitable distribution of advantages.


DiAngelo, R., Dr. (2015, April 9). White Fragility: Why It's So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism. Retrieved July 11, 2016, from 

Jomha, M. (n.d.). What Skin Color do Asians Actually Have? Retrieved July 11, 2016, from 

Olorrunipa, T. (2015, August 25). For Many Black Families, Distrust of Police Has Decades of History. Retrieved July 11, 2016, from 

Smith, S. K., Rev. (2015, December 29). Whites and the Fears Caused by White Supremacy. Retrieved July 11, 2016, from 

Stapler, R. (2016, June 27). 5 Key Takeaways About Views of Race and Inequality in America. Retrieved July 11, 2016, from pew 

Strange Fruit. (n.d.). Retrieved July 11, 2016, from 

Woo, D. (2005, September 28). Institutional Racism. Retrieved July 11, 2016, from 

Zelizer, J. (2016, July 8). Is America Repeating the Mistakes of 1968? Retrieved July 11, 2016, from 

About the Author

Ruth Gordon Ruth Gordon, MA/MSW/LCSW

A practical approach to problems encountered in daily life. A confidential and comfortable atmosphere in which we will use humor to help you gain perspective on current concerns. Enhance your skills for creative problem solving.

Ruth Gordon has a clinical practice in Naples, FL

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