Racism — A Few Things to Think About

I’m 75 years old. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been around the block a time or two, and I’ve seen, read and learned a lot. What I’m seeing right now — America’s racial “conversation” (for some, our national yelling match) becoming ever more shrill and violent — deeply troubles me.

I’m also deeply troubled by the fact that racism among us is far from dead.

The picture I see is a mixed bag, neither all black nor all white. To think deeply about racism is, for most of us, not just troubling, but perplexing.

Let me start by laying my cards on the table. I’m a white, moderately conservative American male. My observations of other counties — from my experiences in living, working and traveling abroad, speaking with people in their own languages, as well as from the history I’ve studied — have led me to believe that I am lucky to live in a country that is fundamentally good. On the right side of history, as Barack Obama might say.

The following thought is far from original but it bears repeating. Unlike most other countries, the United States is a nation united by a set of ideals and values — chief among them freedom, justice, equality under the law, opportunity for all — rather than by a common peoplehood, culture and tradition in the way that Holland, for example, is united by its distinctively Dutch heritage.

I am painfully aware of the many ways in which the United States has fallen — and continues to fall — short of its ideals. Racism is surely our biggest, oldest, most persistent and most damning shortcoming. But although race problems are screamingly evident at a time like the one we are now living through, we should never forget that we, as a nation, have made remarkable progress in the effort to limit the damage caused by the deplorable human tendency to view “the other” with at least some degree of fear, envy and/or outright hostility, something that appears to be rooted in our species’ DNA, as I noted in last week’s blog post.

It might seem to some of my more “awakened” friends that as an aging white male in a country where my darker-hued neighbors, friends and family members (yes, my family is not all lily-white) endure a reality with which I can only sympathize but not literally empathize, I can have little to contribute.

But I do have experiences, both lived and learned, so — for whatever they’re worth — I’m setting them forth here as my small contribution to the effort to turn our yelling match into something more constructive.

First, some personal experiences:

  • Often, when I would walk through the village where for two years I lived and worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in India, I would be followed by a small group of young boys who would repeatedly yell gora lok (“white guy” or, less charitably, “paleface”) at me. Gora is mildly pejorative — not remotely as harsh as the N-word — yet even this would sometimes get under my skin. Of course, this is not comparable to the lifelong experiences of blacks and other people of color in the United States who often endure far worse than mere name-calling. But it gave me at least a small, occasional taste of having my attention drawn to being a minority individual in a sea of people who looked different from me. It wasn’t a great feeling. But it was instructive.
  • When I lived and worked in Hawaii, where those who identify as white (haole) are greatly outnumbered (in the aggregate) by residents of Asian, Pacific island and mixed-race ancestry, I had occasion to write a piece designed to explain to newcomers (malihini) some of the social and cultural differences between Hawaii and the U.S. “mainland.” This required a good deal of thought and reflection. I wrote, among much else, that “this large non-haole majority — ‘people of color,’ to put it bluntly — understand, at some level, that while they feel perfectly at home and at ease in racially and ethnically diverse Hawaii, where no one gives them a second glance, they will often feel or be made to feel uncomfortable or awkward, to a greater or lesser degree, almost everywhere else in the country. This is an awareness that, although it is hardly at the forefront of consciousness most of the time, inevitably helps shape self-image and perceptions of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It makes Hawaii ‘home’ to ‘local’ (i.e., non-haole) people in a far stronger way than California, for example, is home to most of those who were brought up there.”
  • At one point, when living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and working in the city, I had a young black male secretary. One day, in casual conversation, he said something about “running while black” that has stuck with me for over 40 years. I’ve long forgotten the context of our conversation, but it probably had something to do with my having been a little late to an appointment outside our building and the fact that I’d had to run part of the way to minimize my tardiness and avoid embarrassing myself. Clint (my secretary) looked at me and said that he, as a black man, could never run on the streets of D.C. It would be dangerous. Someone might assume he was a thief or criminal trying to make a getaway, and who knew what that might lead to.
  • A year or two ago, I was surprised by a social media post by an Asian cousin (I’ve now forgotten the context) reporting that a white woman had angrily told her “to go back to China.” (Her ethnicity is actually Japanese, but that’s beside the point.) My surprise came from my imagining that because so many Asian-Americans are bright, high-achieving, professional and generally light-skinned (!), they are now rather well-accepted in the American mainstream, much like Jews. Big mistake, apparently. Old prejudices die hard. Prejudice against Jews has hardly disappeared either. According to the most recent FBI hate-crime statistics I found, of the total 7,120 hate crimes reported (probably underreported) in 2018, 12% were anti-Semitic, putting crimes against Jews in third place, behind only hate crimes against blacks (in unenviable “first place” at 27%) and gays (including lesbians and transgender people, 16%). Anti-Asian crimes accounted for 2% of the total.

Reinforcing the thoughts that these experiences have planted in me is much that I have read that has also helped me sympathize with the experience of America’s people of color, blacks in particular. Anyone who would like to get a peek at the world through the eyes of at least some black Americans should read some or all of these recent articles:

Safety and Fear
That last word — safe — leads me to more thoughts about racism. What, in my mind, is the connection? It is that, based on much that I have seen and read, I believe a great deal of what we all view as white racism can be attributed to the fears many whites have for their own safety.

Certainly, some whites’ racist attitudes have different roots, including classic bigotry based on the long-discredited belief that black people are somehow inferior. And some of these whites are shameless in expressing their hatred, rallying, for example, as Neo-Nazis.

But I believe that for a great many whites who hold racist views, their attitude is at least partly rooted in fear, specifically fear of stereotypical young black ghetto males, whose appearance and attitudes can sometimes appear threatening.

I have no data to verify this belief, but I know there have been times when, walking down city streets, I have felt it prudent to give a wide berth to small knots of young black men, seemingly just loitering on the sidewalk, whose demeanor and appearance make it seem as though, just maybe, they’re looking for trouble … looking, perhaps, to harass a white passer-by to impress their friends.

Of course, in many — likely most — such instances, I could have been entirely mistaken. But why take a chance when all you need to do is pass quickly and prudently by?

In my own case, fear has made me neither dislike nor disdain black people. It has only made me wary of the occasional (for me) potentially scary situation. But I can imagine how this sort of fear might make other people feel differently … feel resentment toward those who have made them afraid. Moreover, my life rarely takes me into areas where scary-looking young black men can be found. But I can imagine how people who live, work and/or shop in such areas might get weary of feeling they must often take care to avoid an incident. And that weariness, I suspect, might sometimes engender or reinforce racist attitudes.

To those who might disagree with my thoughts about fear, I would simply call attention to the incidence of crime in black America. Blacks make up a little over 12% of the U.S. population. But they are notably overrepresented in the FBI’s crime statistics (for 2017, the most recent I found online), accounting for 27% of overall arrests, 53% of arrests for murder and 34% of arrests for aggravated assault.

Some argue that socio-economic issues, including racist policing, underlie this disparity. This raises the related issue of police brutality toward blacks. We’ve all seen the video of George Floyd’s appalling murder, and in the widespread rioting and disorder since that murder other examples of apparent police brutality have been caught on video and circulated online. Still, I find it hard to believe that police brutality is — as some claim — the norm rather than the exception.

A columnist whose work I admire, Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe, wrote on June 1 that as “the Washington Post noted last year, killings by cops are ‘rare outcomes’ in a nation with ‘millions of encounters between police officers and the public.’ When those rare outcomes do occur, according to the Post (which has been tracking the data since 2014, when Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Mo.), the racial breakdown is surprisingly consistent: ‘45% white men; 23% black men; and 16% Hispanic men. … In the overwhelming majority of cases, the person killed was armed; only 4% had no weapon. The killing of George Floyd, in other words, was an exception, not the rule. Saying so doesn’t make his fate less appalling, it makes it more so. To see such a thing happen to a fellow citizen is especially harrowing because it is such a desecration of what America stands for.”

Are We a Racist Country?
As I wrote above, racism is surely the biggest, oldest, most persistent and most damning obstacle to our country’s fully living up to the ideals we have long held dear. But how pervasive is racism? Does it define us as a nation … as a people? Is America irredeemably racist? In social media and on our streets today many distraught, angry people say we are.

When a bad cop murdered George Floyd on May 25 it was just the latest in a long list of black men killed by police. Many people believe that racism is widespread not only in America’s white population, but also among America’s police and that policemen pose a danger to black communities.

I don’t agree. I believe neither that this country is irredeemably racist nor that the police are, in general, a danger to blacks and other minority groups.

This is hardly to say, however, that American racism does not exist. It certainly does. To one degree or another, many of us — and not just whites — dislike or look askance at people who are not like us. Many others do not, however. Many of us are “color-blind” or close to it. Sandra, my wife, certainly is.* When I was growing up, interracial couples were few and far between. Segregation was legal and widely enforced in the South, and racial discrimination of one kind or another was widespread far outside the South. Black mayors and congressmen were few and far between. This picture has changed dramatically. Today, not only do we often see interracial couples and children of mixed parentage, we see such couples in a great many TV and print ads. We see black couples, black men, black women … as spokespeople for brands … and thus, apparently, as role models.

And if you had asked anyone just a couple of decades ago if the people of the United States might elect a black person as president, few would have thought it possible in their lifetime. Or their children’s lifetime.

But all this has changed. The real question is … Has It Changed Enough?

The question of what proportion of our population can be found — and where —along the continuum that stretches from “irredeemably racist” to “truly colorblind” is almost certainly unknowable.

I believe that most Americans are basically decent people who, though imperfect, are not racist. Certainly not deeply racist. Americans are brought up not only to revere the ideals our Founding Fathers expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, but also to play fair, something that most of us learn on school playgrounds and carry with us — not always perfectly (some of us learn to take “shortcuts”) — into adulthood.

We May Have Come Far, But We Still Have Far to Go
Till I sat down this morning to wrap this piece up, I was not sure how best to conclude it. Now I know. It is to enthusiastically recommend that you read the essay I found in my email inbox a short time ago.

It was written by another thoughtful columnist I admire, David French, a “never-Trump” conservative with whom I agree on many things (though not everything).

His argument, greatly condensed, is as follows: I used to think that those who decried America’s “systemic racism” were mistaken. Then my wife and I adopted an orphan girl from Ethiopia, and from the new perspective this gave us, the world no longer looked quite the same. We also experienced some profoundly ugly racism directed at our mixed-race family. We now understand a couple of things. First, “my understanding that ‘we’ve come so far’ in American race relations was replaced by the shocking, personal realization that ‘we’ve got so far to go.’” And second, how it is that “a white person can say of racism, ‘Where is it?’ and a black person can say, ‘How can you not see?’”

I skipped over a lot in Mr. French’s essay. It’s worth reading every word. I hope you will do so.

***

* In response to a recent Facebook post, Sandra commented: I grew up in a colorblind home, or that’s how it seems to me, looking back. My professor father’s best friend and favorite handball player was a fellow academic. The difference in skin color didn’t matter to him.

My first friend in elementary was a sweet, funny, feisty girl; we considered ourselves to be born-to-other-parents twins because we both had pigtails, were skinny and loved make believe. The fact that she had chocolate skin, and I vanilla, mattered as much as the fact her hair was brown and curly, mine blonde and stick straight. (I never told her, but I wished I had her hair, her skin, because they were a lot prettier than mine.)

It wasn’t until I went to my college roommate’s home that I started to realize how much skin color mattered. And not in a good way.

I know it must seem odd that it took so long for me to notice, but I was a stay at home girl, an avid fiction and fantasy reader, often living in the stories I read and those I made up.

When I started college I was young (16) and quite naive in many ways.
During the week I spent with my roommate, it wasn’t until I saw other people — pasty colored ones, like me — treat my friend differently, unpleasantly ….
… it wasn’t until I realized why her parents had been surprised by me (my roommate had only told them I was her roommate and new friend)
… it wasn’t until I saw how she was treated by paler skinned people — in her mostly white neighborhood, in stores, at the park …
… that I began to see the world through their eyes.
And hers.

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