Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Here We Are: Pre-Postracial

     I don't believe that I accomplished what I wanted with my last post. My intention was not particularly to point a finger at my friend, but to increase awareness in myself and others that despite whatever progress we've made in our lifetimes, many of us still have racial stereotypes -- partly because we're still largely a segregated society, and many of us deal with it by simply ignoring the issue. When we are segregated, we can lead our lives in the comfort of believing we're not racist, even as we have nothing to do with other races.

     At the same time, it's easy to attribute everything to racism, and then be done with it, as though that explains everything, when it doesn't.

     For example, I surely believe that racism plays a part in some people's criticism of President Obama. But as Douglas and Dianne suggest, you can't then generalize that the criticism and disrespect and vitriol shown to our president is based on race. After all, there were just as many liberals who disrespected George W. Bush as there are conservatives who disrespect Barack Obama. And there were plenty of Clinton haters, Reagan haters, etc. -- and none of that was ever based on race. So as Truman (who had plenty of his own critics) once said, If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

     Also, there's a question of semantics. A racist is someone who takes the behavior or characteristics of a few people -- usually negative ones -- and then generalizes those qualities to an entire race. My friend would be a racist if he concluded that because a few black workers were underperforming complainers, then all blacks must be underperforming complainers. He wasn't actually doing that.

     It's more likely that he is prejudiced – meaning he had a preconception of what these employees would be like based on the color of their skin, and that preconception influenced his opinion of them. But here to me is a more difficult question: What if his description of those women is reasonably accurate? He wasn't on a rant by any means, just telling about a few particular workers in his office. What if they really were lousy secretaries? That is possible. Then you're just proving his point – that as a white male he can't criticize a black woman, no matter what.

     I'm not defending this guy. He's a lawyer, and lawyers often believe the worst in people. But what I'm trying to point out is exactly what a couple of people have said -- that racism, or prejudice, exists in our midst, even among the "nicest" people, and it often is so deeply embedded in our psyches that, as DJan pointed out, we don't even realize it.

     I certainly agree we still have racism in our society. I see it in the lily white suburbs many of us live in, and the lily white schools we send our children to. I saw it the other day, not at any sort of "southern pride" parade, but when I went to an "artsy" theater production in New York – the audience full of "artsy" white people, but not one single person of color. And I saw it the other day on TV – the players on the college football field were largely black, the fans in the stands were almost exclusively white.

     I think a lot of people are scared to talk about race. I confess I hesitated before posting my last item (and this one too), for fear that people would come down on me like a ton of bricks ... or come down on my friend like a ton of bricks. It is certainly safer and more comfortable to just ignore the issue. It's also easy to be an armchair anti-racist – to decry racism in others when in your own day-to-day life you rarely even see a person of another color.

     Like Barb, I think that those of us who are older have certain attitudes that are deeply ingrained. For the most part we Boomers are more tolerant, more accepting, more open to people of other colors and ethnicities than our parents were, much less our grandparents before them. I remember my grandmother, an ethnic Czech who'd immigrated from Austria, didn't think much of blacks, but the people she really hated were Poles. I don't know why, but she thought they were the worst, and you could not tell her any different.

     Anyway, the point is, we are not color blind. But I don't think my friend is a whole lot different from the rest of us; rather, I think he serves as an example of what a lot of well-meaning whites are like.

     I'm just saying, we still have a long way to go. And the proof of that? We can see it every day because we live in a largely segregated society. Go to many of our American cities -- sure, there are a few mixed neighborhoods, but by and large there are white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods, and never the twain do meet. Or, to make it more personal:  If you are white, when was the last time you had a black person over to your house for dinner? Or if you're black, when was the last time a white person was breaking bread with you in your home?

     Here's another uncomfortable question:  Is racism tied up inexorably with class and income? Most people don't think twice when they walk into a medical office, for example, and see professionals of all different colors. But those same people might not feel safe walking through North Philadelphia after dark.

     Anyway, I do see more progress ahead. I think perhaps the next step toward racial equality will be taken by our children. One of my daughter's best friends in high school was a girl from India. One of her best friends in college was half black, half Asian. One of my son's best friends was born in Korea; he was adopted and raised by an Italian-American Catholic family and he just married a black woman who is Muslim.

     We Baby Boomers inaugurated the first black president. Maybe the next generation will inaugurate a truly post-racial America.


rosaria williams said...

Ever since desegregation our children have played together and learned together. The change in attitude was slow; but it did change enough for us to elect a member of a minority, and even consider a woman in that job. Are we cured? We're on the way as long as we embrace healthy habits and stay vigilant. Yes, vigilant.
It's easy to slip into judgement by stereotyping people; it's easy, but morally wrong. And that's where we need to look in the mirror and speak the truth. We need to accept our foibles and work at getting rid of as many pre-conceived ideas as we can in light of new experiences and a new moral compass.

DJan said...

The old prejudices are indeed falling, Tom, but the only way for them to go away completely is for the inevitable passing away of old people. However, that said, I am amazed at the social changes I've seen around same-sex marriage in the last decade. It's possible that Obama's election exacerbated internal racial attitudes, much like a flame is ignited when fuel is added, and then it dies down and nothing is left afterwards. That's what I hope, anyway.

Anonymous said...

How do people feel about animals? Is not the lion strong, an elephant powerful, a lamb meek? What about dogs? Is not a doberman or German shepherd good guard dogs? Does not the Irish Setter make a good guide dog? What about herding dogs, such as Australian Shepherds, or collies? Aren't they used solely as keeping sheep in line? Why is that? Why can animals, birds and fish be categorized but not human beings?
Why do we think men with muscles and height equal strength? Why do we think women the weaker sex? Can it be because what I have just said are all facts?
Can a toy poodle heard cattle? Can a quarter horse win the Kentucky Derby (when up against racing thoroughbreds)? If treating all animals as equals rather than valuing and categorizing them as per their special talents is preposterous, then why oh why do we humans keep insisting that all of us are equal? BECAUSE WE ARE NOT! Why can't we humans be recognized and praised for our individual talents? Why must humans all be lumped together?
Until we do that, there will always be bias and conflict and racism. All the animals get along in the jungle.
Why can't we humans? Isn't life really like a jungle out there?
As in the words of Rodney King "Why can't we all get along?"
Lions don't share ground with parakeets. Elephants don't hang out with crocodiles. Each has their own space yet they all live together on the same planet.
I think it is evident that humans all have different traits, customs and talents. When we humans accept that truth, we will all live a better life, without hatred and envy.
Obama has not been a good president. Period. He is nothing more than a liar. His dishonesty has nothing more to do with color, race or anything. The man is just not a decent person. Period.Blaming Americans hatred on him due to ethnicity is ridiculous. The guy simply is not good at his job, is inexperienced and was only elected so as to show the world we Americans really aren't biased. Ditto for Hillary Clinton. Are these people, other than being black and a woman, qualified for their presidential jobs?
History books will tell.
We should elect leaders who are qualified. Pure and simple. When we humans do that, then there will be enlightenment.

Until then, we are nothing more than ideologues.

Stephen Hayes said...

I don't know if this is relevant, but yesterday our son graduated from college with a degree in automotive mechanics. For years he talked about his shop partner and yesterday we met him for the first time. Our son had described him to us many times, but this fellow being black was never mentioned. Somehow I think this is a step forward.

Kirk said...

I don't like the job Obama has done as President, and I didn't like Bush either. Neither was really qualified for the job. That seems to be the case in general lately, since people who should make good presidents don't want the hassle it takes to be elected. Other than Bush I, the last president I respected was Eisenhower. Having said that, I think I'd probably like Obama should he have happened to be a neighbor or other social acquaintance.

People today self-segregate since they want to be living close to those with similar views. That's one reason we have blue and red states. And the reason so many suburban communities are still segregated long after legal barriers and redlining were eliminated.

I believe the first sign that racism may be dead is when we see a street named for MLK in a white neighborhood.

Olga said...

Birds of a feather flock together,
so do pigs and swine.
Rats and mice will have their choice,
and will I have mine.
Mother Goose

Not meant to be an endorsement, just a reflection. I do believe there is progress, but we are far from fully accepting differences.

Douglas said...

Very nice article... and not just because I agree with you. And excellent comments, too (I especially like the one by "Anonymous"). As I was reading it, I recalled speaking to my father in the couple of years before his death. He revealed things about himself in terms of prejudice that I had never seen before. In one instance, he revealed his distrust of black people (specifically, not wanting a black doctor) and Jews (from a remark he said he made when he quit working at Dictaphone to start his own business; a bike shop).

We all hold prejudices, I think, and few of us are aware of them.

Anonymous said...

When my children were growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I worked very hrd to instill in them respect for others no mater what their religion, race or ethnicity. I was so proud of them when they formed friendships with people different from themselves. Sometimes it took courage.

One short story: My daughter was bullied at school and challenged to a fist fight. The other girl (White) followed her home one day and stopped her at the Purina outlet where we bought pet food. Meanwhile a group of Black girls had followed the two of them. When the bully saw them, she took off running. No blows are exchanged. The fact tha Connie had such friends who stuck together with her made her day. Dianne

PS being from a military family, my kids always lived in integrated neighborhoods, even when it wasn't done .

Anonymous said...

PPS Although I worked with race and ethnic statistics at the Census Bureau, I never liked the questions that elicited the data. Divisive.

PS I hate to answer the question too. I don't like being in a box.

To Stephen.. Bravo!!