Monday, July 26, 2010

Navigating Racial Waters in 21st Century America

For many within the United States, the election of Barack Obama as President in November 2008 brought with it the realization of what the mainstream media coined a "post-racial America." This assertion, they claimed, was not unfounded given that a black president was now sitting in the Oval Office and Americans had finally been able to get beyond our uneasy history with race. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

The recent fiasco involving Shirley Sherrod demonstrates that we are far from being a post-racial country and that long-standing feelings about race seem determined to stick around. Ms. Sherrod, the head of the Department of Agriculture’s office in Georgia, had been videotaped at an NAACP event this spring in which she appeared to have not given fair treatment to a white farmer. The video clip was posted by a conservative blogger and picked up by Fox News. Both the NAACP and White House moved swiftly and she was fired from her job.

But once the complete video of Ms. Sherrod’s message was shown, it was evident that her message was actually one of being able to move beyond race to treat people fairly. Her comments had been deliberately taken out of context, most likely to embarrass the NAACP in response to their recent accusations of racism within the Tea Party movement, and those in positions of power and influence immediately jumped in the fray before considering all the facts. When it comes to race, this seems to be par for the course.

Because our history in regard to race is so troubled and since most of us have strong feelings about matters of race, it is easy for us, too, to form assumptions before we know the facts. It amazes me how those that have never personally experienced the sting of racism to be so quick to dismiss it anytime accusations of racism are made. Of course racism still exists, we say, but we never seem to be able to point to any legitimate examples when the issue is raised. That is, of course, unless it is we white folk that are the supposed victims and then we are quick to play the race card.

On the flip side there are those that claim that people of color cannot even be racists since they are rarely in positions of power and, even when they are, the institutions of our nation are still set up against them. There are even those that have made a living off of racism and their supposed desire to eradicate it. Race is a hot topic and you earn some decent pay by keeping it in the public eye.

For the record, I do believe that any of us, no matter what our ethnicity, can have racial prejudices and biases and even have the potential for racism lurking within our heart. Racism is sin and all of us have the potential to sin in this manner. And because we have been nurtured in a society that has been so shaped by race, I believe that nearly all of us have some sort of racial biases (whether we can admit it or not).

On another note, there is a common expression that is bandied about these days. It is the term “reverse racism”, which is the belief that those in the majority or positions of power are unfairly discriminated against simply because of the color of their skin. But I wonder if “reverse racism” is an accurate phrase? Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano offers an interesting take on reverse racism on the Race in America blog:
"In fact, the debate over whether certain ethnicities can be racist in the first place makes me think we’re getting distracted from our history. Maybe what we should be talking about isn't just racism, but white supremacy.

That is — the belief in the superiority of white males, which led previous generations to occupy other peoples’ lands and homes, to segregate, murder and enslave Indigenous people, as well as people of African and Asian descent (to name a few).

In recent years, plenty of whites have aired concern about "reverse racism." But unlike racism — and white supremacy — such so-called "reverse racism" isn't rooted in history. Fears of "reverse racism" suggest that people of color seek to do to white people what was done to us. Efforts to give black women equal job opportunities, though, aren't designed with the goal creating white male unemployment. Giving a child of color an education that represents their culture isn't an attempt to create an underclass of white children.

Even assuming Mexican-American racism toward whites were possible, it would be based on opinion, not on centuries of Mexican-American violence toward whites."
I believe that Lozano’s point is well-taken. But, no, I don't think it is fair to paint all white males with a racist brush but I think Lozano's assertion is that our shared history needs to be taken into account when examining the topic of race and this is not just a black and white issue (pun intended). It is up to each of us to examine our own heart and to question whether our views on race have been formed by actuality or perceptions? For those of us in the majority, we need to question whether we give sincere regard to people of color when they feel they’ve been unjustly treated. For those that belong to ethnicities that have been traditionally discriminated against, there needs to also be given personal examination as to whether race gets injected into situations needlessly.

Anytime we throw out accusations of racism, it is like we are playing with a loaded gun in a crowded area. We don’t know who will be wounded or what the repercussions will be. Racism is not a toy to be played with on a whim when we’re looking for something to pass the time. When given full vent, it has the power to destroy and maim and take lives. Although there have been people groups that have experienced racism’s toll more acutely than others, anyone can be its victim given the right circumstances.  We need to ask ourselves if we seek to address the sin of racism in order to bring healing or do we use it to keep anger and hatred and division alive?  

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