I contend the only way racism gets better is if the problem is discussed and acted upon. Maybe not all at once, but I have to start somewhere.
As the fictional Ferris Bueller taught me years ago, “Isms in my opinion are not good” and at the top of that nasty modern list is racism.
I honestly considered we all had made substantive progress on race relations, but after the last twelve months, I have been proven very wrong.
And I don’t mean that racism is being defined strictly by all of the hateful acts that happen between humans of different race, theology or sexual orientation — it is the reaction after each event that has shaken my understanding of my country to the very core. The reactions, the media and the online responses range from indifference to full on hatred. I’m discovering indifference is just as bad.
I understand people taking sides when a police officer chooses avoidable lethal force. I understand the debate about who is disenfranchised in this country and the reasons why. However, when some people attempt to defend the indefensible, the problem is far greater than imagined. And, the very recent indefensible act in a church in Charleston, South Carolina that claimed the lives of nine human beings is what I mean. There is no defense for it. No amount of gun toting like the old west is going to make racism all better.
I’m as tired of the talking heads on television as the next person as we try to comprehend the latest race related travesty. However, I think if we if continue to merely hope it all gets better, it will only get worse.
My perspective is a unique blend of parenting and experience. On the parental side, my Mom made it clear about all of us being God’s children and we’re in this together. Tolerance wasn’t enough, understanding and reaching out was also part of the deal. Because of that, I never had a personal issue with folks who looked different than me or worshipped in a different way or talked other languages.
So, give me a gold star and the world is all healed, right?
Not so much.
However, the rewards of an open heart started early in life with a lot of friendships from every color and walk of life. When I was six years old, a loving black family that lived in the downstairs apartment in Tacoma, Washington taught me how to ride a bike. They could have laughed at the silly, uncoordinated white kid, but they helped me instead. Hugs all around, and let us sing, “It’s A Small World.”
In grade school, a Doctor J. (Julius Erving) poster on my wall and Bill Cosby tapes in my drawer made all that bad racism go away in my little world. Then Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock fandom kept the world spinning in the proper direction. I still love those guys, so it’s all good, right? Hanging on every word of Samuel L. Jackson’s dialogue or Morgan Freeman’s voiceovers keeps me in the clear. I must be one of the good guys.
Next up, my six years in the United States Marine Corps offered another interesting approach to race relations as they taught us on day one that green was the only color of Marines. A clever method, but not always perfect. My senior Drill Instructor was African-American or dark green as the USMC vernacular went and is still one of the coolest, baddest dudes I have ever met.
High five, ain’t I grand?
As one of the older college students on the planet, a near lifelong endeavor, it has allowed an ongoing study of history to be a very important aspect of our racism story. To read of the plight of people brought here against their will to lose their identity and parts, but not all of their culture is not a wound that fades lightly.
Especially when too many citizens keep considering the topic race as “over” or worse, that slavery ended a long time ago and we should all feel really great about that. Except the results, however we got there, are not satisfactory. I’ve seen the inner cities of Miami, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore to name a few and the only constant in the poorest sections of those major urban centers is apathy. I was taught that in this great country we’re a melting pot. We can melt together better than this.
Again it isn’t the results that scare me the most, it’s our reaction to them. When I was in Detroit, people beyond that city implied the people who remained somehow deserved their fate. Or a city with humans trying to survive there serving as a political football for both sides of the fence pointing to failed liberal and conservative policies.
Both sides of the political spectrum have failed, regardless of belief.
I wrote a paper about the founding of our country’s ideals once, and specifically regarding one of the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”
And the point of my academic paper was the founding fathers were products of the ideal that formed from a period of European enlightenment that addressed class more than race at the time and specifically questioning the concept of royalty ruling the ‘common’ man. Those words of all of us being equal is true in my mind, but reality shows a different story. It really should be self evident, and maybe we’ll get there one day.
It took a Civil War to get a step closer. Up next were the reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, moved us a tiny fraction closer to equality. There was some progress. The calendar shows me it’s 2015. It is time to take another step forward.
All my empathy and five bucks gets me a cup of coffee, and not much more.
It isn’t enough to not use the n-word. It is not enough to walk away from someone telling a racist joke. It is not enough that none of my ancestors owned anyone else, or that I was born during the Civil Rights movement. It’s not enough that some stores are pulling a Confederate battle flag off their shelves.
And it isn’t enough to drop some platitudes here and hope for a better day.
I get it. There is no easy answer where I get to drop the mic and walk off stage with a winning fix. But I do think Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream still has a chance. I do.
And for the Civil War to truly end, we have to end two additional general assumptions I’ve read all over the Internet in the last week. One is that every white person in the south is lumped into one giant hate group. That concept is a horrific oversimplification making the existing circumstances worse. The second assumption appears to be that racism exists only in one political party or certain states in the union.
We all know the real answer.
Racism is everywhere, everyday.
Ask a person of color, any color and they can relate a story of some kind of racial difficulty. Another thought that needs to be out there is this isn’t a problem relegated to our United States. Again, racism is everywhere. An uphill struggle for humans to understand and appreciate cultural differences is not new.
What makes us great, despite our failures and setbacks is we’re still the greatest chance to be the better place for people of every race to live and pursue the promised happiness.
Another round of gleeful optimism appears unrealistic, but a few days of New York City and I saw so many people from so many places finding a way to get through their day together, even if they go their separate ways at night. There’s another photo largely ignored by the media this year, when folks of every color lined up in Baltimore to protect the police in a time where it would have been just as easy to join the understandably angry crowd.
Ultimately, it appears living in the past doesn’t work. Pretending the past doesn’t exist doesn’t work either. I wish I were a Saint in all this, but I’m not. I was a part of the crowd that bought into the idea we moved beyond overt racism. Ignoring the issue made it worse.
An open heart, open mind for me turned out to simply be a starting place. Racism isn’t going away, yet, I think each of us can make a difference on an individual level, rather than a collective level. Reaching out more, listening more, understanding more, learning more have to be among my next steps. One act of kindness at a time is something I can do.
Writing about and talking about race may help a bit more. Or not. But doing nothing and hoping for the best got us all exactly to this point in time.