Race and Racism

Some anticipate that the upcoming Presidential election may be the most race-soaked contest of the past one hundred years.  This theory holds that Obama can only achieve re-election by tearing down his opponent.  The most cost effective way to do this will be to depict his opponent, and necessarily all opposition, as based on race.  As sad and despicable as this may be, it is plausible and not entirely without precedent.

While an undergraduate and serving as a resident assistant, I was subject to the university residential life “re-education” programs.  There I was taught that racism has two requisite components, prejudice based on skin color and power.  The latter was attached to the equation to absolve all non-whites from the possibility of being racist.  This Kafka-esque absurdity has been abandoned since that moment when New York simultaneously had a Black Governor and Black Senate Majority Leader serving while the White House was occupied by a Black President.

Despite that, and all other apparent progress in society and science, bizarre notions about race persist.  This is nothing new of course, as the concept of race has an illogical and confounding history.  For instance, the ancient Egyptians recognized four races, Egyptian, Nubian, Asiatic, and Libyan.  Three thousand years later, while some argued race should be based on diet more than appearance, European “scientists” maintained recognition of four races.  This time they were European, Negro, Far Eastern, and Lapp.

Racial categories seem insane, then and now.  Surely the peoples of the world have different cultures, languages, religions, and so forth, but to divide people on the basis of skin color makes as much sense as grouping people by height.

Artificially imposing and maintaining categories is beyond absurd.  True, I as a person of pallor with lineage both Germanic and Slavic can look different than a neighbor of African ancestry, but to argue that he and I, living side by side, with kids in the same schools, attending the same Church, cheering the same sports teams, are somehow different just makes no sense.  It makes less sense when contrasted with another neighbor, a recent immigrant from India, who is entirely unlike me in faith, diet, and customs, but is labeled a fellow Caucasian.

Race may have no inherent meaning, yet racism persists.

I propose a new definition.  A racist, according to me, is anyone who thinks the most compelling facet of a person is the color of his or her skin.  Under my definition, if you look at a person, and see not a man, or woman, or child, but a Black man, or Latina woman, or Asian child, then you are being racist.  This may be naïve, but it is both logical and hopeful, and we need more of both those traits.

Lingering racial views can be conditioned by history, demographics, fear or ignorance.  As such racism has roots in our culture.  However, we can succumb to that conditioning or we can reject, and thus, overcome it.  When the President of the United States says of Trayvon Martin, “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” it advances racist conditioning by suggesting that Martin’s fate is more compelling to our leader based solely on melanin levels.  Such thinking is beneath all of us.

Under my definition, the most depressing and pitiable aspect of racism is the conditioning it can impose on an individual.  Without question, racial discrimination is abhorrent but it can be managed to degrees by laws, education, and social pressure.  Most pathetic, and most deserving of our pity, are those racists who think of their own skin color as the most compelling facet of their own personality.  To think an unalterable physical trait is the reason why you are better, or worse, or advantaged, or disadvantaged, must surely be a crushing blow to the self.  Infectious and impoverished self-awareness prohibits you from seeing life through your own eyes, condemning you to look ever through lens crafted by another.

Yet, seeking advantage, race-mongers attempt to impose values and behavior on persons based solely on skin color.  When a Rev. Jeremiah Wright calls Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas an “Uncle Tom,” Wright is the racist, and therefore responsible for contributing to civic division.  When Dawn Trice of the Chicago Times writes that Condeleeza Rice is a “betrayer of her race,” it is Ms. Trice who is imposing norms and limits on someone because of race.

The failed Presidency of Barack Obama can be redeemed even in electoral defeat.  Should Obama and his team choose to embrace racial division, to stoke fears, and promote skin-color-tribalism, he will fundamentally hurt America.  Should he return to the lofty ideals of his 2008 campaign, and eschew racist tendencies, he will elevate the nation and help us to finally begin erasing the social conditioning that keeps racism alive.

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