It’s time to end it. “But how?” you plead. “Because we are blind. No, not colorblind as we had hoped, but blind to our own prejudice… How can we rise above … our tribal selves to reclaim our humanity and move forward together as one country?”
Well, there are models…
Let’s be honest: The notion of racial identity in the US today is a fabricated social construct based loosely on historical generalizations about national and/or cultural behaviors. Humans have always had a dangerous ability to separate into categories, to create stories on the flimsiest evidence in which they are the heroes, (the “people”), while demonizing the “other ( “the enemy”). These “differences” — undiscoverable by any analysis of DNA, evolution, or other actual science — are identified in the modern day of radically mobile (and mixing) cultures, almost exclusively, by a single identifier: skin color.
This is why, throughout my posts I hesitate to even use word race or racism: skin color is NOT a race. Even if it were, our modern history has proved that any presumption of limitation on human capacity based on the skin color, sex, culture or orientation, is demonstrably false.
Yet systemic racism which seeps into our culture, our habits, our laws is based on this lame identifier: white skin or brown. All those people who have pink skin, in this construct, are white. The negro “race,” the latino “race,” the muslim “race,” the native American “race” are, for all practical purposes, just the brown ones. But no matter how stupid or transparent, that “skin-deep” identification opens a Pandora’s box of prejudice and discrimination. In the U.S, impacts can be as intentionally humiliating as police stop-and-frisk actions, as indeterminate as social hesitancy in a “mixed race” setting, as disenfranchising as barriers to voting or owning a home, as demonic as being sentenced — in wildly disproportionate numbers — to years of incarceration or even death.
It’s time to end it.
“But how?” you plead. “Because we are blind. No, not colorblind as we had hoped, but blind to our own prejudice… How can we possibly rise above this distasteful remnant of our tribal selves to reclaim our humanity and move forward together as one country?”
Well, there are models: Germany’s steps to understand the atrocities committed during WWII were spurred by the trauma of the war loss, but they have made its people ever mindful of how easy it is to slip into the most heinous evil against an identified “other.” In South Africa, the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” brought both sides into confessional contact, breaking through each other’s myths, in the course of dismantling one of the most potent structures of racial discrimination in the world. Those successful reconciliations appear to follow at least a few common steps:
- Learning our REAL history. One skin color and/or advantaged class does not make our history. It is important for the majority culture to know and accept all its diverse influences, including its success and it failures. (See my previous post about the darkness at the heart of U.S. history.)
- Reconcile person-to-person. Experiencing the humanity of the “other” in a face-to-face setting of forgiveness and acceptance seems to be an important step in propelling readiness to commit to lasting cultural change.
- Commitment to change. Out of step 2 grows a commitment to replace the destructive supremacy myth with new history, new habits, even new language. A more compelling incentive, of course, is massive, historic failures leading to collapse of the system itself. The German disaster of WWII and the collapse of apartheid in SA left no alternative in those two countries. Perhaps a disastrous race-based election that has morphed into an existential threat to our own democracy will be the flashpoint in the U.S.
- Concrete actions. It’s not enough the want change. It is necessary to marshall all tools at our disposal and find a political center consensus to rebalance racial injustices that have crept into national systems of opportunity and justice. (See my post on Cory Booker/Rand Paul’s Criminal Justice Reform.) Tools include re-training and better training, addressing administrative assumptions that have a stealth racism, policy and regulatory directives, and, where required, new laws.
- Vigilance to recognize and head off warning signs of backsliding to primitive behaviors under a different banner, especially in uncertain times.
This is a “no-fault” victim/victimizer process; confessional, not accusatory. It is premised on the notion that it is more important to understand each individual citizen’s part in perpetuating a structure — than it is to try to affix blame.
Sadly, with the murder of Abraham Lincoln by southern secessionists, the US never went through that process. Reconstruction, overtly planned as racial/cultural reconciliation by Lincoln, became the rise of the “new” white South in the hands of Andrew Johnson. This was the continuation of a disappointing pattern in the U.S.: each advance in the US of human rights, has been followed by a troubling relapse into white supremacy and egregious discrimination. Up to the present day, where many of the gains established in law during the civil rights era have been wiped away, declared “solved” by the Supreme Court, and otherwise rolled back by the “Southern” alignment of our politics. This happened with the complicity of even nominally supportive political interests, including centrist Democrats like Bill Clinton.
Now those crimes and their excuses are firmly embedded in U.S. History and are frankly, continuing to punish and morally compromise current-day descendants of those earlier times.
Several recent analyses of voting and opinions in 2016, have identified race, and particularly white racial fear, as a key voter motivation expressed by Trump’s voter base. One can see the origins of such thinking: the inevitability of demographics; the grievance felt by resentful whites of having to recognize and redress discriminatory practices, and the age-old manipulation and magnification of these grievances by cynical well-heeled political operatives. In spite of the direct interest of Republicans in nurturing this evil for political gain, it’s not a stretch to suggest that do-little politics of racial-identity-is-an-automatic-vote-for-us as practiced by Democrats has played its own role in providing fertile ground for this resurgence of white supremacist sentiment and the dysfunction of our politics
Who is racist, and when? Oddly, while responding to the most racist Presidential campaign messaging since George Wallace, most Trump voters will vehemently deny that they are “racist.” Assuming they are honest, why? And are they different from Democrats who firmly believe that they, too, are not in any way racist?
I think the answer is that we ALL do a fabulous job of suppressing evidence of direct racial animus even — and mostly — from ourselves! This is why it frankly does little good to try to expose each individual’s moment of racism — the “blame game.” On the other hand, it is an important principle to recognize that not even the most liberal and empathetic is totally free of at least the hidden prejudice of your own times. For goodness sakes, even Abraham Lincoln held a belief, from time to time, that the best thing for US black people was to resettle them in Africa.
I argue, then, that attempts to identify and correct individual prejudice boils down to a counterproductive fools errand, frequently as likely to expose the unconscious racism of the accuser.
Hands-on racism, vs systemic racism. No matter what each individual tells themselves about their own hands-on racism, it is undeniable that systemic racism — the structural racism the emerged from slavery, the Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the “bad deal” of the New Deal for people of color, and today’s incarceration epidemic — continues to deny vast numbers of people of slightly differently colored skin the opportunities to succeed that are plentiful for “white” Americans. This kind of racism, because it is culturally derived, can seem quite invisible to those who are not targeted by it, or who nurture it. But over time systemic discrimination is the true killer of hope and opportunity. It’s a devious box built for dark-skinned people by the majority culture to keep them locked away from success! And, even if not directly responsible, we advantaged white folk may find ourselves mostly “going along to get along” with policies that may not affect ourselves much, but which have an egregious effect on people of color. Can we just stop doing that?
If we could only see it completely for the sickness it is. It’s our heart of darkness, and we are all responsible for both the condition and the cure. Can we, as the radical center restore balance and humanity to our political discourse, and come together as moral citizens to create substantive change and reconciliation to this festering outrage? Can we put to rout the actual racists, as well as the cynical manipulators, and their “fellow travelers?” Can we finally end this national shame that never dies, but merely seems to resurrect itself in a different form in each era? No more important question — or answer — exists for the future of our country.
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