© 2008 and 2015, The Institute for Applied Common Sense
The original title of this post when I first generated it in 2008 was, "Why Racism, Although Problematic, Serves a Pragmatic and Utilitarian Purpose." In the context of the recent shootings by a young Caucasian of numerous African-Americans at a Bible study session in Charleston, South Carolina, many have spoken about that elusive "conversation about race," which we seem to be incapable of conducting here in America. It is my contention that such a conversation will never, never, never, happen.... I periodically review my thoughts from earlier posts to determine whether they are still consistent with my current views, or whether I should change them in light of intervening events. In this instance, they remain the same 7 years later.
Hold tight, give me a moment while I put on my Kevlar protective vest and body armor. “Racism problematic!,” you say; that’s an understatement. I realize that I’m about to take a journey filled with land mines and sniper fire. As I have often said, sometimes you have to go to a place to appreciate that you don’t want to be there on a regular basis. At least I know that I am going to take some heat on this one. Well, maybe not…
I’ll tell you at this point – my intentions are good. Additionally, it is my hope that by the time that you finish reading this, you will consider at least some of what I have said, and return your weapons to their rightful and appropriate place. I’ll also warn you that this piece should be read while sitting on the toilet seat of your favorite bathroom. It’s a tad labyrinthine in nature. Addressing the entire racial history of humankind requires at least two pages.
You see, I’m 56 years of age, and I’ve never really given much thought to this thing called racism. It is a concept that I recognized from a theoretical perspective, and about which I had read. However, I simply could not imagine spending much of one’s time dwelling on it.
I also was afraid that by visiting the issue, even intellectually, it might have a “bittering” effect. Consequently, I came up with a construct in the 1950’s that worked for me, and I must say reasonably satisfactorily, at least for most of my years.
You will recall the recent furor generated by Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments during a sermon. In the context of the Obama campaign, many commentators reminded us that “America has never really dealt with the race issue,” or that we “have never had a conversation about race.”
I beg to differ. We’ve dealt with it in many different ways, and during the course of many conversations. The frustration expressed has really come about as a result of our inability to reach some satisfactory resolution, or at least some consensus about the issue.
I would submit that the reason that America has never really come to grips with the issue is because America has always dealt with it in a manner that results in it becoming an emotional issue at the very beginning of the conversation.
It is difficult to come up with an effective way to address a problem if you just focus on the symptoms, and do not really address the underlying sources. Approaching the subject from a little different perspective might enable us to formulate new solutions.
Quite frankly, although I do not have any empirical evidence to support this, it is my suspicion that we really have not made any progress in racial relations over the past fifty years. By relations, I mean how we feel about other races in our hearts and private thoughts.
That’s what really matters.
America has mucked this whole thing up in about as many ways as possible. There is plenty of resentment and seething anger out there, although it may be “inappropriate” to express or display it.
I actually hold my former secretary, Anne, responsible for setting me up on this racial thing. Virtually everyone who knows me knows that it is not a place that I like to go. (I’ve even been accused of denying that racism exists because of my philosophical attitude.)
Anne sent me an e-mail and inquired as to whether I thought that Obama (who I understand is African-American) was “for real.” She said that she was somewhat intrigued by him, but that she had her reservations, as she did with virtually all politicians. She was interested in my take.
I responded by first noting that at a very early age, I remembered someone saying that the most important thing that an elected leader can do is to convey an attitude or feeling to his or her followers. That person went on to describe the attitude that Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill both displayed during their terms. They had the hearts and minds of their people. Both made their respective nations feel that certain goals were achievable. Some would say that Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, did the same thing for most of his years in office, whether you agreed or disagreed with his policies.
I continued by proposing to Anne, on a more personal level, that we might take some cues about this leadership thing from our parents. Fortunately, for most of us, when we were kids, we thought that they were the greatest people on earth. When we became adults, particularly when we had to deal with them during difficult times, we realized that they are just people, ordinary people, with all of the human flaws and problems that we see in others, and in ourselves.
However, during the period of time when their “leadership” was most important, and had its most significant impact, namely our developing, childhood years, they did what they needed to do to provide sufficient guidance for us to become decent, thinking, human beings and hopefully positive contributors to society.
Whatever our personal issues with them may be, that is about the best that you can ask where there is no instructional or operational manual, or even agreement as to what is right or wrong. I suggested to Anne that it’s not dramatically different with the Leader of the Free World. Stay with me, I’ll get back to this racial thing.
One other thing: When one observes celebrities and famous people, one person can say or do certain things, and you have some doubts about their sincerity. You’re just not quite sure whether it is about the celebrity and his or her ego, as opposed to their really being interested in doing things for the benefit of society.
On the other hand, you observe others, who might say or do some of the exact same things, and folks will say that he or she is sincere and really means it. Then again, there are some folks in whom you do not have much faith or confidence initially, and then you have to mature, or you see them mature over time, resulting in you having a different view.
I suggested to Anne that she had to follow her heart; feel it in her gut. I told her that if you think too hard, and look too long, you’re bound to find disappointment and flaws. It’s inevitable. They exist in us all – and we know it.
Actually, I had not paid much attention to Obama until Caroline Kennedy endorsed him. I had not even entertained the theoretical possibility that a black man might become President in America at this point in our country’s evolution. However, Caroline crystallized a nebulous uncertainty in my mind. Those few, carefully delivered words did the trick for me.
Paraphrasing, she essentially said that in her youth, she did not appreciate or comprehend what her Father meant to others. However, listening to the expression of feelings by others who were around when she was a youth, Obama instilled in her the same type of inspiration that those folks claimed her Father did for them. It’s obviously not about experience, is it?
Is he more qualified than any of the other candidates? Hell, I don’t know. I’m not sure, contrary to the case of race, that it really matters. (Parenthetically, I wondered whether a person, contemplating the selection of a spouse, might consider whether various potential “candidates” were more qualified than others, and whether experience would be a prime determinant.) But, then it hit me – the realization that race was not the primary, instinctive, instantaneous factor that I processed upon focusing on him.
Kennedy’s comment suggested that (1) he had the potential to inspire something in us to move beyond our personal crap; (2) this certain amorphous quality was rare; and (3) we really haven’t seen it for far too long a period of time, and yearned for it. It reminded me of Jack Nicholson’s comment to Helen Hunt, “You make me want to be a better person.” It draws or tugs on your whole being. For millions, Obama apparently makes a lot of people want to follow him, regardless of his position on issues, and irrespective of his lack of experience.
I told Anne that it was, quite frankly, transcendental, in nature.
It occurred to me that not knowing, or not paying attention to, Obama’s race, like the position that most of you occupy vis-à-vis me at this point, might be a good thing. But it also got me “athinking.” Are there some “good” things about racism? Well, “good” might be too strong a word. Although the academicians would question the appropriateness of this, I use the words “race” and “racism” interchangeably, since, as a practical matter, if you did not have the latter, the former would be a non-issue. Let’s get back to why racism, although problematic, serves a pragmatic and utilitarian function in all societies, and has done so since the beginning of humankind. Are you still angry with me now?
There is analysis, and then there is drawing a line for one’s self. A few years ago, I met this gal of a different race. A number of her friends had met me and said that I was “acceptable.” She was apprehensive and uncomfortable about meeting me, and had to get drunk and show up at 11:00 pm in order to face me alone. She reiterated that she had been brought up in a home in a working class town, where her Father had clearly expressed his disdain for members of other races.
Her Sister in the Navy had married a man of a different race, and they had an interracial child, who her Father refused to acknowledge or even see. The Father disowned his daughter. My friend struggled with our relationship for years. She frequently made reference to her internal conflict in getting to know me better, and what she had been taught by her Father. She also noted that the friend, who was most supportive of her Brother as he was dying of AIDS, was a member of a racial group that her Father despised.
What I told her, and what I have come to accept about folks who hold views with which I disagree, is that people adhere to the principles and values that they think or feel work for them. It does not advance our cause to be angry with them if our view of race is different.
While some might view it as ignorance, or a lack of sophistication, I call it “muddling through.” Some folks do not seek out information, education, or people of other races, because knowing more stuff complicates their thought process and ability to function in everyday life. There is, after all, only so much time in a day.
For some folks, occupying it with trying to understand what is really going on is problematic. If one has the benefit of being around certain groups of people, and the time, interest, and resources that permit you to engage others outside of your group, you will probably not view those new and different as threatening. However, if your position in life is less secure and more tenuous, the threat appears to be more real. That is not to suggest that it should, or that I am an apologist for racists.
However, for certain segments of the population, it is simply more efficient for them to deal with people and cultures that they recognize, and concepts that they understand, or take positions that someone else, or some other institution, controls. Does that sound familiar? I admit that it may not be the most palatable thing to say in certain settings.
There are two phrases that I have begun to use with more frequency now that I have reached my mid-fifties. They are, “Don’t try to make your issues my issues,” and, “It’s not the way that I want to spend my time.” Racism is frequently about efficiency, with respect to conduct, thought, and emotion.
We only have so much time or energy that we are willing to devote to relationships with folks outside of our known realm, or our realm of priorities. Racism is also about probabilities. Arguably, there are fewer complications and unexpected events associated with sticking with our own and what we know. Is it limiting? Perhaps it is, if that is an issue for you. However, for people who subscribe to it, racism “works.”
Additionally, there will always be a need for humans to feel that they are better than some group of people, and a recognition that they are less well off or fortunate than others, even though it might not be accurate, fair, or justified. Are there perhaps other ways, not comparative in nature, to establish one’s place in society and establish self-worth and value? That we are still uncomfortable with the subject of race, during an era when Obama might have a chance, is reflective of its enduring problematic legacy.
Have you ever watched any shows following animals in the wild, and wondered about their applicability to understanding human conduct? Imagine that you are a tiger, amongst other tigers. Let’s assume that there are other, different animals in your vicinity. If you are familiar with them, and have had other experiences with them, then your reaction or attitude will reflect that prior experience, however limited it may have been.
If the new animal in your midst is a total stranger, who you have not encountered before, then you need to size it up, your guard is immediately raised, and you must make a decision fairly quickly as to whether it is friend or foe. You may or may not be able to run away or successfully fight the strange new animal.
As humans, we have advantages over our animal counterparts. We can move to certain parts of town, join certain organizations, place our kids in certain types of schools, and otherwise take steps to reduce certain undesirable events, and to increase the probability or number of those events occurring that we consider positive in nature.
But having a larger and more complex brain, we can also do others things. We can depersonalize acts that might be interpreted as racist acts toward us, and realize that the act is really not about us, but about the actor. We can also try to address those systemic and structural issues or conditions that encourage the practice of racism, or that make it such a useful coping mechanism for so many.
Hope springs eternal. Laughingman, of the Institute for Applied Common Sense, wrote in a recent piece:
“[T]he dilemma that this Nation faces is significantly more apparent amongst us aging baby boomers, than amongst the kids who will be inheriting the future implications of our, and our parent’s, mistakes. Half of our racial perception problem is hard wired genetic preference. Those of our ancestors who sought out their own kind, (and we still do this on the basis of first blush visual similarity), were more likely to enjoy the support and protection of the group. Adherence to group think advanced the chances of finding a desirable mate and passing along one's genes through reproduction.”
“The other half of the boomers’ perceptual problem is environmental. We may have learned to shake off the fear driven prejudice and behavior, acquired as children from our less enlightened parents. However, acting equal and thinking equal are different things. This may help explain why the most libertine, least cautious, generation in recent memory (we were, after all, willing to swallow damn near anything put in front of us) has become the most compulsively concerned, micro-managing, group of parents...ever.”
“The good news is our kids seem to have inherited our best thinking, rather than our worst fears. So, the ground work put in by MLK, Muhammad Ali, Bill Cosby, and Malcolm X, is showing up as a very new irrelevance of the importance of racial background. Affirmative action has nothing to do with the value of Tiger Woods' endorsement contracts, Oprah's audience, Senator Obama's chances to be our next president, or with the extraordinarily talented Lewis Hamilton's probability of being the next Formula One World Racing Champion.”
“I can't help but think that this is a very good thing. As the population continues to divide into ever smaller tribes based primarily on personal interests, those who pick their leaders based on performance, and emulate their behavior by choice, will enjoy more than their fair share of economic prosperity, and the unfair advantage in the genetic crap shoot.”
“Those who limit their learning to conforming to a previous generation’s preferences may go the way of the Dodo.”
Earlier this week, the world witnessed a generational and philosophical chasm between Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Senator Barack Obama. Rev. Wright has personalized this whole of issue of race, and a result, feels that it is about him.
Obama on the other hand, and this is why he will probably not prevail, has recognized all along that the significance of him even being in the hunt is bigger than the racial factor. However, I don’t think that we are ready for that level of conceptual evaluation yet in this country. (Remember Adlai Stevenson?) That’s why many in the media have turned this into a media circus and resorted to demeaning and demonizing those with whom they disagree.
Yes, America, racism works; and it runs both ways.
© 2008 and 2015, The Institute for Applied Common Sense