In February 2009 the current Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech where he called Americans cowards for a lack of perceived willingness to talk about race. Unfortunately that insult and lament is as far as Mr. Holder went in the speech. Thanks Mr. Holder because everyone knows how easily problems are solved when someone simply points them out. No need to go into the psychology and rationality for why that problem exists or propose possible solutions that will alleviate or even eliminate the problem. How surprising that the beginnings to finding a solution to an underlying problem that has been festering since almost the dawn of man could be initiated by simply using an insult to call for discussion. Gee, if it is that easy how about Congress get over their nihilism and pass quality and lasting healthcare reform (sorry what was passed was incredibly lacking), a legitimate and meaningful climate bill and balance the federal budget. The nonsense that permeated throughout the news media in the last week surrounding the Department of Agriculture’s handling of the Shirley Sherrod situation, where every party was in the wrong, further demonstrates that problems exist. Despite the election of President Obama, which some foolishly believed to be some magic panacea, the nation has a lot of work to do with respects to race relations.
…Wait nothing changed, the simple comment did not catalyze problem solving? It could be rationally argued that Mr. Holder even failed in providing the proper comment, in that is someone actually demonstrating cowardice when failing to discuss a topic that he/she may not be able to discuss effectively? If the Liberal Arts major elects not to discuss string theory because he/she cannot articulate a proper argument that individual is a coward? That fact is that the question of race is rather simple, but has been superficially layered with unnecessary complexities. So what are the elements that have created this distortion and how can society get back to the point where it takes charge of the question of race instead of allowing the question of race to take charge of it?
First things first, this post will be discussing the real question of race, not the partial or peusdo-question. Typically when one thinks about the question of race, one immediately focuses on the issue of the relationship between a White person/White society vs. x person/x society (where x is Black, Latino, Asian, Arabs, etc., but mostly Black). Thus when talking about race apparently it is assumed that no Black person ever interacts with a Latino. Such an assumption seems rather improbable, no wait it is just irresponsible. Also there is no discussion regarding racism against one’s own race. Such a statement seems to be a contradiction in terms at first, but for example when one Black individual accuses another Black individual of ‘not being Black enough’ how else can one interpret the origin of that dissatisfaction. Finally this issue will largely center on the question of race in the United States.
There are three primary elements that comprise the importance and essence of almost all questions and issues regarding race. The first issue, history seems to have the most weight, especially for high-minded moral Whites. Clearly in the United States Whites do not have a very positive track record when it comes to race relations on a grand scale although it could be argued that a very immoral minority screwed it up for everyone else. First, there was the slave trade and institutionalization of slaves as a ‘less than full human’ emphasized in the original Constitution by the 3/5th compromise. Although one could argue that some level of redemption was taken from the Civil War where over 360,000 Union soldiers died in the fight to restore freedom to the slaves, the treatment of Chinese workers during the continued expansion West stains a portion of this redemption. Fear drove another attack against Asians, although some could argue that the fact that they were Asians was the primarily reason responsible for the internment of large swatches of the Japanese population on the West Coast during WWII. It would be difficult to argue that Latinos, especially Mexicans, have not received significant ridicule over numerous decades from a certain portion of the White population and for almost a century after gaining their freedom, some Whites did not treat members of the Black population appropriately. Finally with the events in the last decade, members of the power structure, of all races, have unfairly persecuted many Arabs.
However, it is typically easier to pick on those in power then discuss the actions of other parties not in power when discussing race and exploitation. Although the White power structure is and can be largely blamed for the discrimination, what about the actions of the Black community during acts of discrimination against Latinos or Arabs or visa versa? Sadly there is not a lot of solidarity between races with regards to discrimination which undermines the entire argument against discrimination against any one race; instead race population x seems to take the attitude of ‘thank goodness it isn’t me this time’. The problem is that the ‘isn’t me’ strategy rarely achieves favorable results most notably illustrated by Martin Niemoeller in reference to Nazi Germany,
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out--because I was not a communist; Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--because I was not a socialist; Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--because I was not a trade unionist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me-- and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
It is reasonable to assume that this unfortunate history drives some significant racial tension both in the White and specific minority communities. For most Whites there exist feelings of guilt that such a high-minded society like the United States built on freedom and liberty could ever have dipped into the slums of slavery and internment. For the minority race populations any lessons of knowledge offered by history have seemingly been warped from a cautionary tale to one of paranoia and self-fulfilling prophecy. This misinterpretation of history can almost be viewed in some context as a form of indoctrination of the minority population that discrimination is not something that might happen, but something that will happen; therefore, when something does not go the way that it was initially planned one of the first instincts is to blame the result on some form of discrimination. Sadly such a contention is not just theory, but is frequently practiced by members of a given minority, especially in relation to criminal proceedings where same race support for the defendant is much higher than support from any other race. It would be irrational and completely naïve to propose that racial discrimination does not still exist on some level, but one must be objective enough to realize when the discrimination is legitimate vs. when it is just a figment of the imagination.
What may be the most unfortunate element to history influencing both racial guilt and paranoia is that society may have been bamboozled by its interpretation of history in thinking that race was the primary motivator for slavery, it wasn’t. Many forms of slavery existed long before Blacks or Chinese were forced to work the plantations/railroads in the United States. Many of these instances involving slavery dealt with one particular race enslaving members of the same race. The motivation for slavery is driven by two factors, first the simple primal driver to hold personal power over someone else, basically Nietzsche’s concept of ‘will to power’, to view oneself as superior to another. Second, simple economics in that for labor-based projects slaves have a productivity-cost ratio that is significantly higher than could be gained from an individual from the enslaving population. Proximity also plays a role in the selection of who to enslave and how. If an invading and conquering army enslaves the local population and keeps them localized it is reasonable to expect that there will be a greater motivating force for rebellion because of the proximity to familiar territory that was once their land, a personal deep-seeded pride to protect their home vs. removing those people from that region and transplanting them to some foreign land where even if a rebellion were successful going back home would be nearly impossible.
This is not to say that race was not a motivating factor in slavery, but it was not the primary factor. The original reason race was a factor is not due to any specific attribute, but the ‘difference’ attribute in general. Unfamiliarity and an easy to differentiate attribute, skin color/appearance, feed the belief of ‘different is inferior’. It is highly likely that slavers did not look at an African and said ‘he is Black so he is inferior, let’s enslave him’, but instead said ‘he is Black so he is different which makes him inferior, let’s enslave him’.
So what should be learned from history? If one is White and had nothing to do with slavery in the 19th century or a role in the discrimination or internment of individuals of differing race in the 20th and 21st century, then get over the guilt because there is nothing to be guilty about because there should be no personal accepted responsibility for those events. If one is not White and was not a slave, interned in a camp or has been clearly and repeatedly discriminated against then get over the paranoia that somehow the oppression of the past directly transfers to those in the present. To reflect on history for anything beyond a learning tool, to know how not to act to evade future mistakes or how to act to repeat success, is time wasted.
The second element that comprises any tension surrounding race relations is unfamiliarity. Recall that just two paragraphs ago how unfamiliarity was an influencing factor in the application of slavery. The terms ‘like dissolves like’ and ‘like begets like’ originated in chemistry and biology respectively and are accurate assessments regarding relationships in general. It is normal and perfectly fine if an individual of one particular race, religion, culture, etc. prefers to associate with individuals of the same group. Modern society has frequently fretted about the diversity issue. Unfortunately such concern is misdirected. For instance the highly publicized push to increase the number of females in scientific and mathematics fields do not seem to ask the question of whether or not that is preferable to the females it targets.
To push an individual into a particular field or relationship solely for the sake of fostering diversity is irrational and potentially harmful to those involved. What is of the utmost importance is that all individuals have adequate opportunity to engage in such fields of study both from a perspective of availability and perception (there is no bias that may dissuade someone from taking advantage of a particular opportunity, i.e. ‘females are bad at math’, ‘males are bad at literature’…). However, the choice must be left to those individuals in question. If opportunities are objectively presented and offered to all viable candidates and the gender population for a university’s computer science major still turns out to be 90% male and 10% female, that is perfectly fine, it does not need to be 50-50.
This diversity mindset has moved into the relationship and friendship realm as well where there is something wrong with society because all White people do not have a Black, Latino, Asian, Arab, etc. friend and visa versa for all races. Such a concern is misinterpretation of the real concern. While it is fine if generic child of race A does not have generic child of race B as a friend, what is not fine is if generic child of race A chooses to exclusively associate with other children of race A one the basis of race, thus eliminating meaningful and legitimate social interaction with non-race A children.
If one does not interact with children of different races it reduces the ability to effectively consider the influence those individuals may have on the world, limiting the role those individuals play in the world in that individual’s mind. Basically such a lack of interaction creates an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ type effect where because interaction with those individuals does not routinely occur there is little reason to care about those individuals, especially in a positive way, which indirectly tolerates discrimination. Unfamiliarity is also the primary element to why race remains a continuing problem because parents lack the skill and experience to discuss elements of race with their children, perpetuating confusion and indifference. Clearly the generic phrase, “We’re all equal” has impacted the issue of race in the same way “Just Say No” has impacted the war on drugs. Parents need to go deeper, but how can they if the knowledge base they have to draw from is so limited. Unfortunately the issue of unfamiliarity does not appear to have prospects of improving in the near future as demographics in the last decade have become more homogeneous across various spectrums.
The lack of real interaction with members of different race, the unfamiliarity of the second element, both in a positive and a negative manner facilitates the prevalence of the third element that encompasses the issue of race, preconceived notions. Preconceived notions stem directly from unfamiliarity and lack of interaction with individuals of a differing race. If one does not have direct information regarding a particular race based on personal interactions, all of the available knowledge one will have to draw on regarding discussion about that particular race will come from stereotypes and hearsay. Beyond the issue that stereotyping a group of people is never a good idea, this form of information acquisition is detrimental because it closes the ‘loop of avoidance’.
Recall that the reason stereotypes are used is due to a lack of genuine experience with another individual. If stereotypes are used an individual could reason to him/herself that there is no need to get to know that classification of individual because the stereotype provides enough knowledge in case interaction is ever required, i.e. ‘Talking with that Black person is unnecessary because all Black people are good athletes and criminals’. Basically those who rely on stereotypes have a smaller probability of ever interacting with others of a different race than those who do not rely on stereotypes, which is sad because interacting with those of a different race would more than likely lessen the weight of those stereotypes. Of course sadder still may be the fact that the stereotypes surrounding all races are frequently negative or patronizing.
So if step one was identifying the important elements that make-up individual perceptions surrounding race and why individuals may choose not to discuss it or be unable to discuss it (the three previously discussed elements). Step two is how can individuals discuss and perceive race in a mixed race society? Cleary when discussing race it is irrational to state that all people of all races are equal. If all people of all races are equal then all people would be the same person. Talking about race is not the issue, what is said about race is the issue. Different races are different, even people within the same race are different, but it is imperative that people not regard these differences with an inherent negative connotation. A certain race is not inferior to another race because of their taste in music, clothing, the way they speak, etc. Interestingly enough the best way to understand how individuals differ on racial lines is to understand the culture of a particular race and the cultural differences between races. The culture of a particular race is not the entire story, but rarely will understanding the base culture of a given race not result in a better understanding of the race itself. In fact a strict adherence to the perceived rules of culture can be held largely responsible for same race racism, the previously noted ‘not being Black enough.’
So when Mr. Holder wants people to discuss race, what exactly is he saying? Clearly an acknowledgement of the discrimination and tension between different races in the past is advisable, but such acknowledgement should only be reserved for understanding the negative ramifications of disproportionate treatment against members of different races. However, once this acknowledgement is made history cannot be used as a means to continue to divide different races. Next it is important to understand the different culture that each race practices and how those cultures influence both action and thought for it is in the culture where most of the defining characteristics for a given race of people can be discovered. By understanding these differences in culture, a better understanding of the individual representative of that particular culture can be gained. This cultural issue is also central to why individuals elect to compartmentalize themselves in same cultural environments. It is not necessary that people avoid compartmentalization in living space, but they must avoid allowing compartmentalization to pervade their ability to form non-same race relationships.
Then race loyalty must be abandoned. It is not appropriate to support someone over one of another race solely on the basis that one of the individuals is of the same race. This is especially true when considering negative actions. It is not a matter of racial pride; it is a matter of common logic, rationality and self-respect. Such a stance does nothing but damage the credibility of that particular race. When a certain race takes a legitimate issue and makes a mockery of it by implying a racial factor to the issue, such a contention deserves ridicule and should make future claims of racially motivated wrongdoing less believable. Finally the world is not perfect, no matter how open society eventually becomes towards the interaction and acknowledgement of the uniqueness of each race, there will always be foolish dolts that refuse to believe that a particular race is not inherently inferior to his/her own. The best that can be done with these individuals is to identify them and isolate them from any significant power.
Overall race and their relations is a rather simple topic that receives more attention than it should because individuals cannot let go of its controversial and oppressive history. Also people are apprehensive about discussing and accepting the simple fact that people have different viewpoints and traditions in which rarely is one relatively inferior to another prior to empirical and logical analysis. So what will it be, will society continue to allow race to cloud and dominate its evolution or will society rise up and finally address the issue in a genuine and honest fashion?