U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “You lie !” during President Obama address on Sept. 9, 2009. On Sept. 15, former President Jimmy Carter responding to an audience question in Atlanta dropped this bomb : “I think it’s based on racism.” Two days later, Alan Wilson, a candidate for the office of South Carolina State Attorney General, defended his father by stating “There is not a racist bone in my dad’s body.”
So with this outburst, the question of race carefully sidestepped during the whole presidential campaign of 2008 has finally resurfaced. I am relieved that it was an ex-president, a respected humanitarian and a White man who dared to use the dreadful “R” word because had such an accusation come from a person of color, it would have been immediately dismissed as opportunistic. Although Jimmy Carter is a liberal, a persuasion considered an intellectual flaw in some circles, his opinion will not be so easily ignored. I hope it will trigger frank and honest discussions, for we all need to revisit the question of race, a four hundred year old colonial question as American as apple pie. (It has not triggered any discussion.)
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“There is not a racist bone in my dad’s body.”
What I find revealing in such a statement is the implication that the term “racist” only applies to white supremacists i.e. people who violently profess their hatred of Jews and people of color. Therefore, with the exception of these isolated and marginalized individuals, the vast majority of White Americans are free of racial prejudice. Hence many decent people believe they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies. Racism is a “thing of the past”, a crime committed by other men in other times, a chapter of ancient history for which the whole nation has already atoned. So, as members of a civil and polite society we all must let bygones be bygones.
This explains why White people don’t want to hear about racism. The word (in any variation of it) has a disturbing ring and “against all apparent logic” makes them feel guilty of something they haven’t done. “My great-grand parents came from Europe and we were never involved in slavery ! Am I guilty of being White ? Does it make me a racist ?” The cry of “reverse discrimination” is the next logical step.
Have I described the feelings of most White folks ? Empirical experience suggests I have. How many times have I heard “Minorities have come a long way. Can’t we just get along now ?” It would be nice indeed, if we could.
A long way ? Certainly but there is still a long way to go. Research found that Black people, everyday and every time they step out of their homes, are made conscious of their color, that the resulting stress has become their main health issue. We are not talking about the irritation of having “a bad day”, a grumpiness that will pass with a good night sleep. We are talking about daily life, everyday life in a toxic world. On the other hand, White people rarely think about the color of their skin. Why would they ? (Except when it’s time to go to the tanning booth.) Their whiteness is the norm and the “standard” of society. They were born into a state of affairs supported by children books, school books, magazines, movies, the media, etc. In sum, reinforced by a whole culture. The world is white. They belong to it and it belongs to them.
This brief incursion into “popular psychology” shows that the term “racist” triggers among Whites the most disturbing emotions. They become uncomfortable, frustrated and irritated. They feel they have to defend the “American way” (their way) by denying the existence of racism. They offer examples of “affirmative” remedies and opportunities designed to uplift Blacks. “The ball is in their field now !” They even say that they have learned to be politically correct. For example, they have shied away from mentioning the skin color of a person of color when trying to describe him or her, and feel uneasy when they have to. Above all, they instinctively understand that they must refute the existence of racism in order to be able to enjoy the belief that their economic privileges result from their own achievement, not an uneven field of play.
Here is a silly example of how a distasteful word is replaced with a more palatable one :
The adjective “ethnic” as used in “ethnic diversity” is a (not so) clever substitute for the word “racial” which like “race and racist” is carefully avoided. People think “racial diversity” but call it “ethnic diversity” which is a semantic error.
English, German, Swedish and Italian for example are ethnic groups belonging to the same race, the white race. Ashanti, Bambara, Ibo, Maasai are also ethnic groups belonging to the same race, the black (or negroid) race. Thus, since ethnicity is defined by a commonality of language and culture – while common anatomic traits defines race—we can say that ethnic diversity has been achieved a long time ago when European immigrants from England, Germany, Sweden, Italy, etc. landed on our shores and intermingled. Thus, ethnic diversity already exists and defines this country.
What we are really talking about is racial diversity, the gathering of all races and engaged in all social activities. Let’s use the correct word.
The malaise caused by a single little word is indeed the symptom of a deep and lingering problem that no longer can be ignored. We have to examine it seriously and honestly, work together without fear and guilt, without denials and accusations. We must not be tempted to settle accounts but instead share a spirit of cooperation and reconciliation. There is no other way if we want the healing process to begin.
Knowing that Jim Crow laws (1876-1965) lasted into the second half of the 20th century should cast a new light on our times. However most people will argue that since these laws only applied to the South, Northerners should not be held responsible for a crime that took place elsewhere.
In order to have a complete and accurate picture, we have to go back in time and examine the slave trade. “Do we have to talk about slavery again !” Yes we do.
Contrary to common belief, there were slaves in the North, albeit in smaller numbers since there were no plantations. But more importantly, what is much less known is that Northeastern seaports were actively involved in the trade. In fact they were the center of it. Bristol, R.I. for example was an important point of departure for human trafficking. It had shipyards, merchants, banks and enterprising citizens ready to invest in a very lucrative operation, a business that outlasted the Civil War and enriched the whole North-Eastern region.
The trade and the presence of slaves had another impact on the North. Racism found a fertile ground in the preexisting prejudice Northerners had against American Indians since the establishment of the first colonies. Although not as brutally applied as in the South, racist laws were observed in the North. Over time, segregation became the norm in the whole Union.
Finally the race riots of the 60’ did not spare the North, quite the contrary. So we can easily debunk the myth of northern liberalism as far as race issues are concerned.
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Now the questions I was eager to ask since the beginning of this essay don’t seem out of place anymore :
– How can a privileged person born and raised in a society where not too long ago millions of citizens were denied their human rights on the basis of color, be immune to racial prejudice ?
– How can a privileged person living in a culture filled with subtle (at best) racial stereotypes, myths, innuendos, jokes, lies and “benign neglect” be able to attain such a high moral sense of impartiality, fairness and justice for all ?
– How can a privileged person rise above us common mortals to become the fulfillment of a dream, a “New Being” free of prejudice and full of human feelings ?
To such a person I would ask : What have you done to rid yourself of the racist bones you, like everyone else, were born with ? Have you read Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Dubois, Eldridge Cleaver or George Jackson ? Did you volunteer to register Black voters in the South ? Have you actively examined your daily emotions, thoughts and behaviors in an effort to rid your psyche of all the unconscious hang-ups, all the innate blemishes which cling to us like birthmarks ?
Let me suggest a quick test. Read the following questions and immediately answer using your “gut reaction”. Be honest. The test is only for your personal edification.
1-You are at a bank for a question regarding a financial transaction. You have at your disposal four clerks of the same age : a Black man, a White man, a White woman and an Asian woman. Who appears to be best qualified ? (I didn’t add Latino and/or American Indian representatives to keep it short.)
2- You are interested in a used vehicle. You find four cars you equally like : same model, year, color, mileage, condition, price, etc. The sellers are the four clerks you saw at the bank. Who will you trust ?
3- You are shopping at an electronic store. You have the same four clerks at your service except that the Asian one is now a man. Who appears to be best qualified ?
4- You are playing poker with the four clerks from the electronic store. Who is the player you have to watch closely ?
And finally, would you let your daughter marry a Black man ?” To give you time to collect yourself, allow me a digression. I would like to share with you a classic movie and a true story. They will help you see the depth of the problem.
Do you remember “Guess who is coming to dinner” ?
In this movie featuring Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Sydney Poitier, we have two White parents whose daughter is dating a Black man. Played by Sydney Poitier, the Black man is a perfect gentleman, educated and well-mannered. His only sin is in his skin. The young woman’s parents are liberals. They don’t have a single racist bone in their bodies and have raised their daughter accordingly. I could add that they support the NAACP and give money to humanitarian organizations. Although they are for the advancement of people of color, they see Blacks in abstraction because they have no social contacts with them. The emancipation of minorities is a cause they wholeheartedly endorse, but when a Black person physically appears before them, the foundation of their belief is shaken. What will they do if their daughter decides to marry him ? Will they betray their ideals and dissuade her ? They are in a cruel dilemma.
The following story could be played by the same actors except that this time Sydney Poitier is from Jamaica not Chicago or New York. “Oh, you are from Kingston, Jamaica ? Says the father. How nice. And your parents have a plantation ? No ? The aluminum industry ? Yes, the bauxite of Jamaica, I forgot ! So your father is an executive for Alcan, Kaiser ? Oh, he works for Reynolds, the American giant ! Nice. And you are an engineering student ? Good !”
The father is thinking : “This young man is here to learn American technology and has no ill feelings against my country. He is a foreigner happy and grateful to be here. What a difference !”
The young Jamaican is thinking : “A White family has opened their arms to me ! They treat me with respect ! Americans are not as racists as I was told !” Everybody is happy.
Back to my set of questions. I don’t have to hear your answers to know that like most decent White people, you believe so much in your goodness that you have lost touch with your unconscious self. You are so much out of touch that you could be delusional. You think you are not a racist because you are not a member of the KKK. This means that you don’t even know the nature of today’s racism. After four hundred years of practice, it has become a meandering, perverse, sneaky, slippery, multiform and ubiquitous phenomenon. Like a virus it has adapted, survived and grown silently.
“Now wait a minute ! Give the man a chance ! What if he had answered “yes” to all of your questions ?”
If he had, I would genuinely congratulate him : “Bravo ! You did your civic duty. You are now a recovering racist. Persevere and complete your Twelve Steps.”
Are you shocked by my harsh sentence ? Since you have read this far, continue to bear with me and let me use this analogy.
Let’s imagine that you are a male telling a group of women : “There is not a single sexist bone in my body !” What would the response be ? Polite silence and smiles ? You guessed right. Sensing doubt and suspicion you quickly add “and I’ve read the Second Sex, the Feminine Mystique and the Women’s Room !” More smiles and some chuckles. Your erudition has failed to impress. What can you do to convince these women ? You search your brain and come up with the unthinkable : “I married one of them !” Case closed.
Every woman knows that men have sexist bones even though they love their grandmothers, mothers, sisters, wives and best friends ; even though these women are members of their families and part of their social circles ; and yet as individuals, men continue to treat women with insulting condescension (at best) and too often unfairly. Why do they do that ?
Let’s return to the question of race. Contrary to women, Blacks are not usually part of a White person’s family or social circles. Many Whites don’t even have any contact with Blacks. No Black co-workers, no Black friends. (The same could be said regarding their lack of contact with other people of color.) Blacks are therefore the “unknown”, and we all fear the unknown. Worse, we fear “what we do know of them” for we have internalized all the accepted generalizations, caricatures, myths, lies and yes, statistics. “Our prisons are full of them !” (So are our Marine Corp and Armed Forces, but this doesn’t seem to count.) How can we deal with the power of such messages ? We have to examine them, sort them and discard them if they negatively typify a group of human beings.
“What about White men who married Black women ?” you may ask. “They made a commitment. They must be non-racists !”
I would agree in the case of older bi-racial couples born out of the civil rights campaigns of the 50’s and 60’s. They were committed to a common ideal before they became committed to each other. This was their very special bond. Unfortunately these unions of the soul and the heart are not common today. (It is too early to say whether the election of Barack Obama which brought together Black and White youth would duplicate the examples of the 50’s and 60’s.)
(I was again too optimistic.)
I would answer by saying that any healthy relationship opens the door to mutual understanding, a truism valid for any union, inter-racial or not. However, once the door is open, the two partners have to take the next step and enter the world of self-discovery and self-criticism. That’s when soul searching really begins. Closing one’s eyes and pretending to be color-blind doesn’t work. It’s playing ostrich. Without a conscious effort on the part of both partners, I must say that inter-racial unions don’t mean a thing. What about men who married women ? Does the husband become non-sexist the minute he says “I do” ?
While on the subject of inter-racial relationships, allow me these comments. They will show the twists and turns of racism.
1-For a long time White men had free access to Black women. It happened on the slave boat, continued on the plantations and well after the Civil War. Today, the situation is reversed. Black men have more opportunities to meet White women than White men to meet Black women. How did it happen ?
– First, with the end of legal segregation, Black men are free to be in public places where they can meet White women.
– Second, Black women could do the same but in spite of their numbers – there are 3 times more women than men in Black communities because young men have died (homicides), are in jail or in the Armed Forces – they tend to be much less visible in public places. (The reasons are multiple and require a separate study.)
–Third, Black neighborhoods are off-limit to Whites (and to other minorities.) The reasons are obvious.
Fourth, Black males would not allow their sisters to date a White man (or anyone from another minority group).
(As a result, if in St. Cloud, MN we see a young White male with a young Black female, the chances are the woman is a foreign student from Africa or the Caribbean.)
These strange paradoxes show how twisted, irrational and insane racism has become on both sides of the divide.
2- I have met veterans married to Asian women they brought back from overseas. What motivated their choice ? “Oriental girls make good wives. They don’t bitch and don’t make demands. And if I get tired of her, I can always, you know…” Yet these men would not believe it if I called them racist and sexist.
3- The same can be said of White men who admire Black women. Exoticism is a powerful attraction, a temptation for some. So, Josephine Baker was a sensation in the Paris of the 20’s just like Bayoncé (to only mention two Black entertainers) is adored in the USA and all over Europe today. But has their charm put a dent on racism ? It didn’t then and still doesn’t today.
4- I must add this observation : both Josephine Baker and Bayoncé, like many celebrated Black entertainers, are light skinned mulattoes i.e. women with facial features closer to the universally accepted white standard of beauty. This bias is ingrained in black psyche. Black activists in the 60’s condemned Ebony Magazine for exclusively featuring light skinned models. Furthermore, Google shows 492,000 results for “straightening black hair” ? So much for “Black is beautiful”.
Thus, racial prejudices are highly pervasive. We all have racist bones in our bodies. This means that Blacks as well as Whites as well as all other racial groups share to a certain extent this same flaw. However there is an important distinction we must make. To do so, I suggest this equation :
Racism = prejudice + power
By virtue of racial privileges and status (social, economic and political) a White person who acts on his/her prejudices can harm a targeted group. The Southern segregationists institutionalized racism by enacting the Jim Crow laws. And today, the systemic “benign neglect”, the persistence of stereotypes and fear found at all levels of society are perpetuating a state of affairs fraught with inequities.
On the other hand, the prejudice displayed by a person of color is only a personal – and isolated act of rage and revenge. The absence of political power prevents the incident from reaching a higher level and impacting the status quo. The only fruit of such vengeance is the satisfaction of a grudge. If not caught.
For this reason I don’t agree with the term “Black racism” because it equates an emotional and desperate act of retaliation with institutionalized racism supported by economic, social and political power.
To illustrate the role of power let’s see how a White person reacts to the term “whitey” or any other epithet. With a smile and a shrug. “Go ahead ! It doesn’t hurt me !” On the other hand, the “N” word uttered by a White person, an insult filled with the history of slavery, lynching and centuries of abuse. It will resonate deeply in the Black person. It is clear that power is a crucial element of racism.
Power is also absent in the prejudice displayed by one minority group toward another. It is rooted in ignorance, fear and competition. Economically, minority groups are rivals fighting for crumbs, handouts and opportunities. Like crabs caught in a trap, they all try to climb one over the other.
Blacks who are bona fide U.S. citizens since the end of the Civil War, tend to despise other minorities. They are simply exercising their “seniority” rights, just like Whites have despised new European immigrants just “off the boat”. Blacks also view other minorities (as most Whites do) as “foreigners who can’t even speak English” even if in many cases these individuals only look “foreign” because of the yellow or brown color of their skins.
(Ask Asians or Latinos how they feel when facing a Black person in a position of authority, for example a Black police officer, ranger or custom officer.)
These immigrants (Asian and Latinos) and their children will find a way to return the favor. Having quickly learnt that Whites are on top of the totem pole, they will espouse the values of the dominant group, internalize the stereotypical caricatures of Blacks, approach them with fear and treat them with contempt. This form of “racism” found between minorities is in reality what I would call a “racism by contagion”. It is fueled by ignorance, fear and jealousy especially when another ethnic group has achieved a modicum of economic success. This “contamination” only mirrors the main race issue.
(I will not discuss the situation of Jews and American Indians because they warrant a separate discussion. I will only mention that the First People in this hemisphere have sadly become the last. Because of their “invisibility”. Except during the 1973 tragic incident at Wounded Knee, they have not raised much public attention. I even believe that it is still open season to insult American Indians with impunity. This is not limited to the Dakotas. The St. Cloud Times reported this summer that an Indian family was mocked and taunted at a local ball game. I expected Times readers to voice their disgust with a flood of letters. The incident was met with total silence.)
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Can’t we all get along ? It would indeed be nice if we suddenly could. If all inequities and injustices, frustration and rage, accusations and false alibis could all be gone overnight ; if the many hang-ups that pull us back like rubber bands could all disappear tomorrow.
But progress is a constant struggle. Without action against prejudice, the prejudice all around us, in the system, in others and in ourselves, we will continue on the path of confrontation. Reconciliation is the only answer. We don’t have a choice.
September 25, 2009
Note : 1) I don’t use the term “African American” because it doesn’t distinguish a naturalized African immigrant from a Black American whose ancestors were slaves and whose history is unique to this country. 2) I don’t use the term “Native American” because Clyde Bellecourt and Russell Means, founders of the American Indian Movement (AIM), continue to use the term “Indian”, a misnomer they have embraced and endorsed with pride. 3) I reluctantly use Black American, Asian American, Mexican American, etc. because these compound words will remain discriminatory as long as Whites are known as American (pure and simple) instead of Euro American or any other concoction of that sort. 4) I haven’t dealt with the Chicanos whose presence in the U.S. predates the Mexican-American war (1846-1848) nor have I mentioned immigrants from the Indian peninsula and other parts of the world.