Wednesday, April 04, 2012

More Thoughts on Racism in America

The Trayvon Martin case has touched a very raw nerve in American culture. After years of being hidden away in the closet of the American mind, the spectre of racism once again haunts us. Ever since the 1960s – the “Freedom Riders,” the civil rights movement, the march on Washington and Dr. King’s stirring speech at the Lincoln Memorial, the march from Selma to Montgomery, the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act – Americans have been convinced that racism is a thing of the past in the United States of America.

There’s no question that the attitudes of average Americans changed during this time. Where white Americans once either ignored the group of people we once called “negroes” or thought about them as somehow less than human, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was very likely helped by the emergence of television. Images of men, women, and children in peaceful protest being beaten with truncheons, attacked with dogs, and swept off their feet and blasted with fire hoses, brought home to America the injustices of inequality. The powerful, emotional images entering our homes night after night sparked our sympathy for Americans of African descent and changed our minds about accepting the status quo of Jim Crow segregation.

I’m pretty certain that anyone reading this post who happens to be white will vehemently – angrily! – disagree with me, but we’re fooling ourselves. Ask a white American what he or she thinks of racism, and they will tell you just how awful and inhuman it is. Ask a white American if he is racist and he will be shocked – shocked! – at the suggestion. “I am not a racist,” he
will tell you. “I have black friends.” But, I repeat, we are fooling ourselves.

No one wants to think of himself as racist any more than he would think of himself as stupid or ignorant or hateful. But stupidity, ignorance, and hatred are in no short supply in the United States in the second decade of this new millennium. So you must be talking about someone else. It’s not me.

Racism did not disappear from our nation in the 1960s. It merely disappeared from our words and actions. It lives on, alive and well in our hearts. Certain words have disappeared (we all know the words I’m referring to). Certain behaviors have disappeared. We now consider the words vile and disgusting and the behaviors boorish and uncivilized.

But have we changed? Have our hearts changed?

A lot of the problem stems from our understanding of the words “racism” and “hatred.” It’s very easy to have a friend, black or white. Friends are people we like. We like them because we believe they’re good, and we believe they’re good because we’ve bothered to get to know them, to know
their hearts. I have black friends and white friends and Asian friends and Latino friends. I have Christian, Jewish, and Muslim friends. My students are black, white, Latino, Asian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and atheist. I can honestly say I love my friends. And I can honestly say that I love the vast majority of my students (if I have a problem with a student, it would be more
connected with their seriousness and work ethic than their ethnicity). They are, like me, American. Does that mean I am not a racist? It’s a bit more complicated than that.

If I am walking down a Chicago street late at night and a young black man wearing a “hoodie” is walking toward me, am I uncomfortable? Why? I do not know the young man, not anything about him. I have no reason to believe that he has any intention, good or ill, other than to walk down the same street I am walking. What could possibly be the reason for this discomfort?

Human beings tend to fear two things: 1] that which they don’t understand, and 2] that which they do understand, if they understand it incorrectly. And here’s where racism comes in. Very few (if any) Americans will admit this, but we all have preconceived notions of others based on social categories. We react to people that we don’t yet know not as individuals, but as members of one of these categories. And we make decisions about what category people belong to based on their appearance. We all do this. All of us.

In an earlier post, I talked about both white racism and black racism (what some white people refer to as “reverse racism”). And I said I understood black racism far more than I understand white racism. I said that white racism is based on deeply-seated feelings of privilege and cultural superiority, and "reverse racism" (black racism) is based mostly on resentment of white privilege and on fear – fear of someday being a victim of white racism.

Like Trayvon.

And here’s where hatred comes in. In order to hate, it is not necessary to actually take a gun and shoot someone. It is not necessary to beat someone with a club until unconscious, chain him to a pickup truck, and drag him around town until his lifeless body literally falls into pieces. In
order to hate, it is not necessary to make someone sit in the back of a bus, give him a separate bathroom, or make him step off the sidewalk as you walk by. In order to hate someone, it is not necessary to call him a vile and disgusting name.

All that is really necessary to hate someone is not to give a shit about what happens to him. And when we don’t give a shit about what happens to a whole group of Americans because of the color of their skin, that is racism.

So I feel it necessary to point out the following inconvenient truths:
On average, African-Americans have a lower life expectancy than white Americans, with higher infant mortality, greater risk of coronary artery disease, diabetes, stroke and HIV/AIDS. (source)
African-American unemployment is on average twice the white unemployment rate, at all times, not just during the current economic crisis. (source)
At some point in their lives, 42% of African-Americans will experience poverty as opposed to 10% of whites. (source)
One third of black children live in poverty today compared with 15% of white children. (source)
  • Black Americans experience homelessness at a rate seven times that of white Americans. (source and source)
  • 70% of white high school students go on to college as opposed to 55% of black students. (source)
  • A black man is three times more likely than a white man to be stopped and searched by police (racial profiling), and once stopped is four times more likely to encounter physical force by police. (source)
  • A black man is nearly 12 times more likely than a white man to be sent to prison on drug charges, even though the greatest number of drug users is white. (source)
  • Young black students are three times more likely to be arrested than white students. (source)
  • If and when arrested and convicted, black prisoners spend about 10% more time in prison than white prisoners. (source)
  • A white man who kills a black man is far less likely to face the death penalty than a black man who kills a white man. (source)
  • Someone of any race who kills a white man is four times more likely to face the death penalty than someone who kills a black man. (source)
And most of America doesn’t give a shit. Not about any of this. On the contrary – if we’re going to be honest with ourselves – we rather expect that this is pretty much “just the way things are.” We like to tell ourselves that in America “anyone can make it if they try,” that all you have to do is “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “work hard to get ahead.” In other words, if you are one of the 45 million Americans living in poverty, you’re just not trying hard enough. And if the majority of that 45 million is black – well, the numbers speak for themselves, don’t they? As Herman Cain said, “If you’re poor and unemployed in America, blame yourself!”

White Americans will never admit it, but deep in their hearts they still believe that black people are inferior. And any attempt to point out the disparities and injustices in our social and economic structures, any attempt to suggest that there are structural inequalities built into the
system that we have never addressed, any attempt to argue that racism survives in America – these are all met with the charge of “race baiting!”

None of this is ever going to change until each of us changes. The change has to come from us, and the object of that change is us. We have to change our hearts. And we have to change our
minds. We have to stop thinking in terms of stereotypes and deal with people as people. We have to stop thinking in terms of narrow self-interest and begin to reclaim the idea of the common good.

A week before he died (forty-four years ago last week, to be exact), The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. He called his sermon “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” In it he said the following:

We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.

John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: "No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." And he goes on toward the end to say, "Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." We must see this, believe this, and live by it if we are to remain awake through a great revolution.

Trayvon Martin’s tragic death is bigger, I think, than a debate over a really bad self-defense law (“stand your ground”). It is bigger than our own narrow political agendas. It is bigger than our bruised egos when someone accuses us of racism. It is bigger than the terrible, incompetent
justice system in a small Florida town. It is about something bigger than all of these, I believe; something universal. It is about looking at ourselves and being honest, it is about realizing that no one in America is safe until everyone is safe, that no one in America is a success until everyone is a success, that there is no more central a self-interest than the interests of all. We are all Trayvon Martin.