This week, the U.S. experienced a series of tragedies that once again remind us of the horrible racism that still exists in America. Well, most of us are reminded of it. Unfortunately, a few people seem to think that these racial tensions are new. Some blame President Obama for fanning the flames, which is a bit like blaming women for catcalling because they have the audacity to walk down the street. President Obama has been subject to racism since before he even entered office. He’s been caricatured as a monkey, accused of being a secret traitor to our country, and even charged with being behind all of our mass shootings, as some nefarious plot to get rid of guns. Meanwhile, more guns are being sold during his Presidency than ever before, and if he were a Muslim spy, he would be pretty terrible at it, considering the relative lack of success that such terrorists have had during his Presidency. But this post isn’t about our President. It’s about racism, and the fact that it never went away and thus was never brought back.
Look, as a white male, I’ve never been the target of racism or sexism. I don’t know what that feels like; I can’t even imagine it, because that would require living every day with the knowledge that you are judged for something completely out of your control. But I was born in the 1970s, in Alabama, a state with a strong reputation of historical racism. Only a few years before my birth, there were still separate water fountains labeled ‘colored’, and the notion of separate but equal facilities was in full swing. A little over ten years before I was born, George Wallace, the Alabama governor, literally stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama in an attempt to block segregation. Many people think of the 1960s as the height of racial tensions, and to some degree that is right. But it didn’t end after that. Things didn’t suddenly become equal in this country.
Here’s a few highlight reminders of the tense moments that have occurred in my lifetime (I was born in 1974). Boston had flares of violent protests in its attempts to desegregate the schools and the busing in the city in the mid to late 70s. In 1978, in Houston, a riot occurred during a protest of the police killing a Hispanic man, the tipping point in existing conflicts between the city police and the Hispanic community. In 1980, Miami, riots started after an African American man was beaten to death while being arrested. 1992 saw serious riots in LA after the Rodney King verdict, where officers were acquitted after beating an African American man (on film). The 2001 Cincinnati Riots took place over racial profiling and discrimination. In 2009, riots took place in Oakland, CA, after African American, Oscar Grant, was fatally shot by a transit police officer.
I’ll stop there, because you are likely familiar with the Baltimore Riots, the Ferguson Riots, and the latest incidents of violence that have arisen over racial tensions. Also, these are the ones that people want to blame on renewed racism, whatever that means. But as you can see above, it never went away. And here’s the part that you might not like: it’s our fault, and by ‘our’ I mean White Americans who just aren’t paying attention.
We are the ones who laugh uncomfortably when black comedians tell us about “driving while being black”. We are the ones who listen to Dave Chappelle talk about his white friend, Chip, and how he can smoke pot in front of cops with no consequences, and then think “that’s clever!” But worst of all, we are the ones who talk about being ‘colorblind’ or how we ‘don’t see color’.
I’ve been there, myself. As a teenager, I remember saying that I didn’t think of people in racial terms at all. I thought this was the enlightened viewpoint-our society was post-racial! Yay! Oh, sure, older people were still racists. I could hear it in the things they said. But not my generation. We were going to be the first non-racist Americans. I was well-intentioned, I suppose, in my own way, but incredibly naïve. This didn’t help anything. Sure, I was better than the outright racists in some ways, but I was still ignoring the persistent inequalities that were happening all around me. I went to a private school through sixth grade. In my time there, I saw two African American students, one of whom was the son of Pittsburgh Steeler legend John Stallworth. He stayed in my class for about a year, until his dad decided that this might be giving him a skewed view of the world. The other stayed about 3 years before switching schools. In my hometown of Huntsville, AL, the high school that I attended, in the SE quadrant, had almost no black students, while the one in the NW quadrant had a majority. The city was basically segregated, not by law, but in practice. I hear it still is.
So, it was pretty easy to be colorblind when I hardly ever had to interact with POCs. When I moved north, to Ohio, I heard people accuse my home state of being racist. As I just noted, this is a fair criticism, in many ways. However, it seemed problematic when I looked around and realized that 95% of the people in my community were white, and only 1% (seriously) were black. In cities like Cleveland, you can literally draw lines down streets that separate white neighborhoods from black neighborhoods, in part due to the failures of the Fair Housing Act.
If you look at the actual stats, you’ll find a huge disparity in how POCs are treated by the police, both in terms of ticketing and, as we’ve recently seen, violent confrontations. Whether Black Americans are 9 times more likely to be shot by police or 21 times more likely, the numbers are shocking.
Unfortunately, the problem isn’t new. It isn’t getting better, or if it is, it’s not getting better fast enough. We have a systemic racism problem in this country, and our black President isn’t the source of the problem. Racism never went away. If it seems different today compared to ten or twenty years ago, that’s because the news is covering it more (in part, thanks to protesters, but also thanks to video capture devices). Also, depending on your age, you might have been less aware of the news and general social realities a decade or two ago. These injustices were happening when you were a child, and every year of your life, whether you noticed them or not.
None of this means that you, in particular, caused these problems. However, it does mean that we all need to do a better job of changing the system. More importantly, if these issues seem new to you, then you need to do a better job of listening to what minorities are telling you. When Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock tell us a joke about how black Americans are treated differently than white Americans, it’s OK that you laugh at that joke. But when your nervous laughter is over, it’s time to think about what they’ve said and realize that these jokes shouldn’t exist at all. Comedians often channel their most painful moments into something that teaches us about the world. Let’s learn the lessons, and let’s change the system. How do we do that? We can start by listening to the people who are experiencing the injustices. Don’t get defensive; don’t point out that you aren’t the problem. Listen and learn. We have to understand the problem before we can fix it, and that will require hearing some painful truths, about our society, and about ourselves. It’s time to stop being blind and start seeing again.