Sunday, June 21, 2009

Why Is Racism Not Over?

Of course, racism didn't end on Jan. 20, 2009. There even was a (currently dormant) blog mocking the idea called, natch, Racism is Over. Yet this past weekend, lunching and dining with fellow educated Americans of European origin whom I would have thought knew better, I was brought face to face with the persistence of racism.

Don't believe it? Here are two instances in one day.

Item one: Lunch. A government lawyer complained to me about the admittedly absurd absence notes from one colleague (e.g., "my cat has a headache") and the administrative assistant who apparently manages to work all day without turning on the computer on her desk. His girlfriend proceeded to generalize about how people of the ethnicity of the two goldbrickers (whisper: "black") tend to be like that.

So I try reason: President Obama is African-American and he seems pretty hard working to me. The reply? "That's the exception."

Then I begin to make a list in my mind of black intellectuals, artists, legal scholars, biblical scholars -- and I stop. It's no use: everything has been prejudged. The only sane response is given by my companion, who insists that these comments are simply wrong.

Item two:  Dinner. I express concern for my younger son's exposure to mortal danger given his choice of career (law enforcement) and a fellow diner who is a health care consultant with umpteen degrees blurts out, "Especially in D.C., which has a 70 percent black population." The implication, of course, is that the murder rate has something to do with blacks, because as we all know, whites never kill anyone.

For the second time in one day, I am dumbfounded.

I genuinely liked these people who, admittedly, were recent acquaintances. The lawyer was less of a surprise. He had admitted to being Republican -- and I'd wondered how and why -- but I gave this attorney the benefit of the doubt, assuming he was a harmless, traditional Republican, of the sort who bemoaned the loss of the gold standard, but was otherwise enlightened. There are a scant few.

The consultant, however, was utterly baffling. An active Presbyterian who had argued with me on matters of principle ... how could an informed Christian hold such obviously racist views?

This is where I am stuck. There's an almost unconscious prevalence of views that can't be called anything else but racist.

I admit I am biased -- not on the basis of color -- against certain kinds of people. I lampoon the Southern good ol' boy with gusto (and I figure the heirs of the Confederacy deserve a taste of their own medicine). But I would readily admit to anyone that what I really know about the South and Southerners fits in a thimble. This is merely satire of a stereotype, not sociology.

But the people with whom I was speaking were, in contrast, pretty sure they were right, that the facts backed them. They were almost surprised that anyone would question such opinions.

Here we are in 2009 and one still hears outrageous things about ethnicity from Americans who have distinguished academic and professional careers, people who profess in every other respect to be civilized and open-minded.

When I try to find a reason why, I am stuck.


Anne said...

I've been very disturbed lately by a very good friend's racism. He is really a decent fellow of good character but I felt slapped in the face by a situation last winter, regarding a black man. My friend _has_ black friends so I was really taken aback.

In the past I'd been aware of his usage of "dot head".

I knew a young woman who can't stand Puerto Ricans...this after attending 16 years of Catholic Ed? (I don't see her any more.)

Anyway, after the incident last winter I was so sickened, pondering my own place and complicity, that in a letter to an organization I frequent I asked about addressing racism hoping that we could address it to the larger body. I hope to pursue it if allowed.

In the meantime, a few weeks ago when another black man, as a state inspector, administered a really tough critique, after he left my friend was just vile about him. This time at least I was able to say "don't say that." The man was just doing his job.

Sometimes I've toyed with the idea of wearing a big button with something that says "no racist comments here, please." I've come to realize that I can no longer just let snide comments or remarks go without objection.

It is a pain in my friendship with this guy that underneath his bonhomie I can't forget he is a racist.

Anonymous said...

Why is racism not over? Because it is a component of human soul (you know, the sum of atomic particles)

Select better acquaintances.

Anne said...

"Why is Racism not over?"

Perhaps, maybe, partially:

People not really knowing, associating with *other* people; not truly believing their own creeds; non-racists not speaking up or speaking out; non-racists being too polite in *polite* company; taking it for granted that racism isn't an issue; religious groups of a Christian persuasion not addressing it in an "in our face" way.

Perhaps, maybe, partially not recognizing where the racist line is drawn. For instance, in my local society we speak of ourselves as Americans but with a polish/irish/italian/etc brush, but where is the line when we refer to one another affectionately or identify with each other and when we become set apart from the other by negativity. And then we don't broaden ourselves by not seeing the corrolation of the small to the global society. Or we don't want to see that our excuses are just that.

Perhaps some don't see or believe that it is an evil, especially if one is not part of a religious group that condemns racism.


Your suggestion, Genevieve, sounds like a good idea, but wouldn't it lead to an elite group that would have no good influence over less ...enlightened people? Create a new segregation?

& then there are folks, friends & family who aren't necessarily complete idiots or beyond redemption in this regard. Do we throw the baby out with the bath water? My friend's racism is not his complete person.


Any other ideas?

Anne said...

James Carroll is one of my favorite thinker/writers & the timing of this week's opinion is just right. His thoughts on racism are worth reading till the very end.

The Boston Globe -

More than mere lunacy
By James Carroll | June 22, 2009

"WHEN James Wenneker von Brunn murdered Stephen T. Johns at the Holocaust Memorial Museum earlier this month, history was less made than revealed. ....." continued at:

(the address will probably need to be cut & pasted together, or go to the Globe's Op-Eds)