A True look at Racism

I was recently accused of being a racist.

I’m a regular poster on the NBA boards at FOXsports.com. At one point some of my fellow posters and I started talking politics (I know, I know…talking politics on a sports website is just a disaster waiting to happen) and someone accused Barack Obama of being racist due to his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. I disagreed and added what I thought was an offhand comment about Wright not being completely off-base. This kick-started a campaign by two other posters who said that by agreeing with Wright in this matter that I must also be racist. This completely confused me and we went back and forth for quite a while until I realized that there had been a miscommunication almost from the get go. The person who had initially mentioned Jeremiah Wright claimed that the reverend had said that White people attempted to commit genocide against Black people in this United States. When I responded with the “he’s not completely off-base” comment, what I had in mind was what Wright actually said, which was the United States government had attempted to commit genocide against Black people in the U.S., with the “not off-base” part being a reference to the Tuskegee Experiments.

Whether or not that actually got cleared up is not entirely clear to me. It’s possible that the two other posters might still think that I am racist. I don’t find that to be a particularly big deal. I know that I’m not. Or at least I don’t think that I am; it’s probably better to ask people who know me to get a more accurate answer. But that conversation has caused me to start thinking…what exactly is racism?

At one point during the debate at FOX sports, I tried to explain the difference between individual racism and socialized racism, which seemed to fall on deaf ears. That frustrated me but I am not at all surprised. In modern day America, I think we’ve done a fairly decent job of villainizing the racism that is part of the nation’s historical make up. No sane person today thinks that slavery or the decimation of the Native American nations were good things. Most people realize that the government-sanctioned treatment of non-White (and specifically Black) people as recently as the middle of the 20th century was appalling. Today, it’s pretty hard to find a group of people who are more commonly reviled than the Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazis. These are good things.

However…

We have done ourselves a disservice here because we’ve gotten to the point where the above situations are now how we define racism, completely leaving out so many other things that need to be addressed. On FOX sports, I think I had a pretty simple way of showcasing what institutionalized racism is. When someone asked me to explain it, I wrote the following:

“Do you believe that all races in the United States are today treated equally? Does the average Black child born in America today have the exact same chances of failure or success as the average White child? If your answer to either of those questions is ‘no’ then you have already acknowledged what institutional racism is.

If your answer to either of those questions is ‘yes,’ then let’s discuss this: according to the Human Rights Watch, Black people make up 12.32% of the United States population. Yet they make up 43.91% of the population that is in prison. If all races are treated equally, then why is there such an enormous discrepancy in those two numbers? There are only two possible explanations. One, Black people are inherently more likely to commit crimes. Two, different races are not treated the same. There are no other possible reasons. You tell me which one is the answer.”

When you look at it that way it becomes a bit clearer why socialized racism isn’t discussed as much. Protesting individual racism is easy. Anyone who discriminates against someone else because of his or her skin color or ethnic background is wrong. That is simple and straightforward. As individuals we can examine our own actions, and if we know that we don’t do that, then we can feel good about ourselves. But how do you solve a problem that is beyond what you as an individual can control? The answer, obviously, is that we cannot. And in a society in which we have been conditioned into thinking of racism as being just about an individual’s choice, it is difficult to get people to pursue a line of thinking that points to a broader picture that is outside the realm of control of any one person, or even multiple people.

That brings me to the big question: what are we supposed to do about this? Is it an unsolvable problem? I have mixed feelings on this. On one hand, it IS possible for people of various ethnic backgrounds to coexist without the racial tension prevalent throughout the US. I used to work with someone who grew up in Puerto Rico before moving to the mainland. I remember him telling me how shocked he was to observe the casual racism he encountered here. He told me that there was nothing of that sort in Puerto Rico. According to him, because there is no historical dominance of one ethnic group over the others, as there is in the United States, people don’t look at one another as different races. They simply see each other as Puerto Ricans. Now, I’ve never even visited Puerto Rico, much less held residence there, so I have no idea how realistically he portrayed his island; nevertheless, until someone can definitively prove that this is not the case, I will hold on to hope.

However, it is what is in the other hand that causes my pessimism. While I believe in the viability of harmonious ethnic coexistence, I question how possible it is in the United States. When my friend described his shock at observing racism for the first time, the sad thing is that what he described were things that I had come to accept as matters of fact. There are multiple reasons that cause me to question if things will ever really change:

* The belief that nothing needs to change. It is very much tied in to the lack of understanding what institutional racism is. I tend to hear this from White people more than anyone else. The general rationale behind it goes along the lines of, “Minorities are better off than they were 40 years ago. They get special consideration for colleges and jobs. Why do they still complain?”

* The undiscussed reality of the situation: in order for people who have been disenfranchised to ever gain equal footing in a society, the group that has served as the ruling class will have to give up some of its power/status. It is unlikely that that will be done willingly.

* The transformation of EVERYTHING into a racial issue. This mostly comes from Black people and is championed by guys like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Anything that can be even remotely tied into race is. A recent example of this is the whole unnecessary uproar about the Vogue cover that featured LeBron James and Giselle.

* The influx of new racism. Historically, racism in the United States has been tied into the relationship between White Americans and Black Americans because that allows us to examine the most egregious examples. But more recently, more varied examples have reared up due to the increasing mixture of different races and ethnicities. The 9/11 attacks fueled a sentiment against anyone from the Middle East or even India. Additionally, as more and more people immigrate to the US from other countries, they bring with them their own prejudices. As I have witnessed first hand, someone who grew up in Nigeria, surrounded by other Nigerians, is much more likely to be suspicious of people “not like them” than someone like me who, at various times in my life, has lived in White neighborhoods, African-American neighborhoods and Mexican-American neighborhoods.

The interesting thing about this one is that it goes beyond people dividing themselves by color. Instead the boundaries are determined by common heritage. There is a member of my extended family who has said that she cannot support Obama. Her reason? She doesn’t think that the first president of the United States who is of recent African decent should be from Kenya, he should be from Nigeria. I don’t know how seriously she means that but the fact that she even thought of it is interesting. It doesn’t stop there, however. The most disparaging remarks I’ve heard about African-Americans haven’t come from White people, they’ve come from African immigrants. Of course, the vice versa is also true. That isn’t a particularly new phenomenon in American history. Early British-Americans were prejudiced against Irish-Americans who in turn were prejudiced against Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, Jewish-Americans, etc. I guess differences aren’t that big a deal as long a there is another group that can commonly be hated.

So what does this all mean? In 1899, British writer Rudyard Kipling created his poem, “The White Man’s Burden.” Almost since its first publication, readers have debated as to whether Kipling intended this poem to be literal or if it were meant to be satirical in nature, a la Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” In summary, Kipling’s poem is an exhortation of cultural imperialism and explains to the White race that it has an obligation to rule over all other races and help them evolve from their barbaric ways. You probably won’t find too many people today who will publicly express that same viewpoint. However, it does bring to mind an interesting question: do certain races have certain obligations?

There is one thing that I am 100% certain of, and that is that racial reconciliation will NEVER happen without open communication. Some people don’t want to talk about it because they feel that we are past that. Other people are all too willing to talk about it but only in terms of how they can benefit. Both of those are wrong. Racism still exists. Most Black people in the United States could lay testament to that. Here’s my question though: is it wrong for a White person to not see that? Should Black people expect White people to see racism just because we do? Is that fair?

I don’t know if it is. I don’t know if it is fair for a population to be expected to see slights that are never used against them. I don’t know if it is fair for White people to be expected to apologize for atrocities that were committed by their forefathers or by their less intelligent brethren. I know that I don’t want to have to always apologize for other Black people who suffer from “nigga syndrome.” So I wonder if that is the Black Man’s Burden. Do Black people have an obligation to teach and explain what racism in the modern day is? And if so, how should that be accomplished? Personally, I’m sick and tired of seeing protests. They have their place but when every single thing that is perceived as a slight results in Jackson or Sharpton jumping on a soapbox, exactly how much effect can protests be expected to have when it comes to racial reconciliation? The Jena Six? Protest worthy. LeBron James on a magazine cover? Not so much. Again, racial reconciliation will not happen without frank and open discussion and such discussion will not and cannot happen with protests occurring over every little slight.

The interesting thing about the original accusation that kick started this whole line of thinking is that the timing of it was juxtaposed next to an annual hip hop event in Austin, B-Boy City. While I wasn’t able to attend all the events that I wanted to, I did manage to hang out with some b-boys during a practice session as well as attend what was supposed to be an emcee battle and ended up just being a bunch of hip hop fans hanging out.

Something that struck me about these moments was the diversity in the ethnic makeup of the people who were there. There were literally people there from every imaginable ethnicity. But here’s what I noticed even more: nobody talked about it. Not once did I hear anyone mention race or ethnicity. And the reason it was never mentioned is because nobody cared. In the world of underground hip hop there is only one thing that ever matters: skills. If you have skills then you will earn respect and that’s it. No one care about what color you are, what part of the world gave birth to your ancestors, how much money you have or anything of the sort. You earn respect by proving that you belong. And you prove that you belong by demonstrating your talent-end of story. What a fascinating concept.

One of my favorites songs is “If You Can’t Say Love” by the Visionaries. During his verse, LMNO drops this line:

“Embrace grace, cut the chase, know our place:
In a world of anger with piles of waste
We’re some do-gooders with the filteration
We’re Mexican, Islander, Euro, African, Asian
Celebrate Creator before creation
Division we’re erasing.”

He’s speaking specifically about his crew, which is a group of six guys with a multi-ethnic background. However, every time I hear those words, I can’t help but think how
much better off we ALL would be if we took heed of them.

One day we all will be able to say “love.”