We Are All Racists

We Are All Racists
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In honor of Martin Luther King Day we are retuning this article from last year

By Don Portolese

On September 12, 2001, Jean Marie Colombani of the French newspaper Le Monde declared, “WE ARE ALL AMERICANS.” This was in response to the horrors of 9/11, a tragedy that rocked the very foundation of who we are as Americans. Given the French disdain for our cultural dominance of a world that they once culturally dominated, this was an atypical French moment. They put aside their rancor to show us empathy and solidarity during a very difficult moment in our history. The reality being that we are all victims of terrorism. Another grim reality we share is that we are all victims of racism.

Grappling with so many racially tinged tragedies over the last year (and so many years before), tragedies that have exacerbated rather than abated the problem of racial inequality in this country, an apt headline to sum up our recent racial failures should be, “WE ARE ALL RACISTS.” Those who deny this reality are liars; those who embrace it are far worse. Yet, both of these extremes obfuscate the problem and impede any real progress toward eradicating it.

Yes, go ahead and be outraged. Call me a racist. Call me a bigot. I am by no means proud of this. In fact, I am downright disgusted at how, after so many years, racism remains so ingrained in our society. Yet, I feel that it is only by admitting it lurks deep-down in all of us that we will be able to make any real progress on this issue.

The excessive use of force against people of color at the hands of police is as good a gauge as any with which to measure how racist our society still is. If it is so inherent in law enforcement, then it is difficult to hold out much hope that it is any less pervasive in other segments of our society. Therefore, before we put the entire blame on our police, let’s consider this: How can we be outraged by racial profiling by police when we as a society racially profile people on a daily basis? How can we claim that race isn’t an issue for us, when it is an issue in every other segment of our populace? Let’s face it, we have been raised by a racist society, so, regardless of what we’ve been taught at home or in school, we simply can’t escape it.

And why are we so surprised that, after so many years, incidents of racism seem to be more commonplace than they were before? We certainly have our race baiting media to thank for this. The “Us versus Them” showdown on which every news story is predicated has certainly exacerbated the problem. Whether it be MSNBC, CNN or Fox the divisive nature of media in order to gain viewership is certainly not helping matters.

However, our inability to look ourselves straight in the eye and declare we are racists is far worse. For just as an alcoholic or drug addict must admit to the problem before he/she can benefit from treatment, so too must we admit we are racists before we can ever hope to cure ourselves of this illness. This comes from acknowledging our racist history and how this pernicious force plays out today.

If we look at the Jim Crow South of our past, we see that many whites were also excluded from voting. They could neither read nor afford property, which were two major criteria for voting in the South. As politically powerless as African-Americans, poor whites were fed rhetoric that established their supremacy based on skin color. With such a tenuous means of differentiating themselves from blacks and other minorities, their hatred was heightened and their acts toward other races all the more heinous and destructive. As rates of racism are highest among the under-educated, one could argue, then as now, that racism is indeed as much an economic as a social problem. One could even argue that race is being used in the same way today to mask the widening chasm between the rich and poor.

For why is it that, after amendments, acts, laws and affirmative action, we are still where we are in regard to race? Unfortunately, the majority of poor are still minorities. We have made little progress toward making our society more equitable. However, when considering our quest for equity, we must also be sure that the responsibility is equally shared. Whites may still hold the power and have certainly lorded that power over people of color. However, there is an ingrained victimization in the hearts of many minorities, an obstacle that causes them to remain entrenched in the injustices of the past rather than move forward.

While these injustices insult our sensibilities, the road to recovery lies in a mixture of sensitivity and sensibility. We must be careful with our words but not let semantics alone dictate our approach to fighting racism. If we are condemned for speaking the truth about racism in our institutions like Mayor de Blasio of New York City. If we are maligned for making observations about races that are consistently proven true. If we throw our hands up in disingenuous outrage every time someone makes a minor observation about a particular race, how then can we expect to exorcise our society of this malignancy?

Stereotypes and semantics are certainly part of the equation. We must examine the origins of names, idioms and institutions to see if they hold anything that is inherently racist. Language is the route that our thinking follows when we come to conclusions about the world around us. If those avenues of thought are tainted with racist ideology, then we must remove that ideology by its roots.

More important than words and names, though, are deeds. While many of us have made real progress in fighting racism, the actions of others must be called into question, especially those of our lawmakers and those who enforce the laws. Conservatives justify cuts to social programs saying that minorities are lazy and don’t want to work. Yet, rather than making cuts to important programs, we need to invest more money so we can break the cycle of poverty. We need to invest in programs that train our poor in new skills so they can become independent. We need to pay more people to follow up with welfare claimants so that we guarantee that no one is taking advantage of the system, but, more importantly, that people are getting the skills and resources they need to truly become self-sufficient.

We must also look for more than superficial answers. While conservatives are hellbent on reinstituting “Stop and Frisk” laws, one has to ask about the bigger problem: Where are all of these guns coming from? Minorities don’t manufacture weapons; they simply obtain them easily in our Wild West society where gun rights rank higher than human rights. Why is our focus on those who end up with the weapons rather than those who make it all-too-easy to obtain them? The same could be said of our society’s drug problem which disproportionately affects minority communities.

And, if we are to focus on actions, let us focus on the people and deeds that have gone deeper than a superficial solution. That was the aim of people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That was the aim of Latinos like Ruben Salazar. That was the aim of those like Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, and so many others who sacrificed their lives fighting this disease. In many ways we are still driving down that desolate Rock Cut Road in Philadelphia, Mississippi. A road that has continued on through Montgomery, Memphis, Ferguson, Staten Island, and so many more places where racism continues to rear its ugly head. A pestilence that continues to undermine so much of the hard work that was done in the name of solving this problem.

New York Times columnist, Charles M. Blow, had this to say about racism and racial conciliation: “Lift that rock and all sorts of uncomfortable things come crawling out — a privilege made possible by plunder and oppression, intergenerational transfers of hopelessness bred by intergenerational societal exclusions — truly ugly things … We have to decide what racial conciliation should look like in this country. Does it look like avoidance and go-along-to-get-along obsequiousness, or does it look like justice and acknowledgment of both the personal parts we play and the noxious structural bias enveloping us?”

Until we lift that rock and deal with those uncomfortable things; until we look deep within our hearts and at the very pillars our society is founded upon; until we remove this malignancy by its roots rather than prune it; until we all admit we are racists and stop walking on eggshells around this issue, we will never purge our society of this problem.

Martin Luther King Jr. said,” I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.” I say, until we are prepared to dig deeper and invest some serious thought and money into eradicating this problem, racism is the only reality that we will ever know.

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