Monday, April 29, 2013

Race Remains at the Core of America's Woes

Time to end racial injustice

Race. It’s a four-letter word that can cause reasonable people to conjure unreasonable thoughts and actions. Or inaction. More and more I’m realizing race is at the root of so many of the economic and social woes we suffer – in this community, across the state, and around the country. Here’s one big reason.

I’m one of the millions from my generation raised on a steady diet of sitcoms and Disney. Programs displayed idyllic ways of living. Through it all was the flavor of the day: vanilla. Still is. The problem though is that I am chocolate. African American. What does TV (and for that matter film and even grade school text books) have to do with race problems in America? They are all forms of mass media that speak to familiarity.

Being familiar with something, seeing it over and over, contributes to how a person views their world in a major way. How we come to see (or not see) things is a function of the images and experiences known to us. Along these lines, we all come from a place of what’s becoming known as ‘implicit bias.’ That is, attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious way.

Like driving past trees on the road, people of color can melt into the background, becoming essentially invisible to white people. But the reverse isn’t true for people of color. White people can choose not to see. People of color see whites everywhere, even in the privacy of our homes (think TV, newspapers, magazines, etc.).

When I was growing up in the ‘60s, there were few African Americans in print or on television. When we were, we were mainly placeholders; positioned to literally provide color to the sea of white faces. When we weren’t in the background, we served as plot points to drive a white character’s story. Portrayals were unbalanced at best and derogatory at worst. We were largely depicted as down and out, soaked in liquor, drugs. Pimping or hooking was a common backdrop. We were hard luck cases that needed saving from one great white hope or another. Or we were the loyal servant maid, butler, gardener, or cook.

That’s the lens white people largely viewed people of color through... over and over again, episode after episode, year after year.

It’s those unflattering images that people of color were, and often continue to be, inaccurately portrayed and unconsciously embedded into America’s collective psyche, thank you very much. But this isn’t about calling out media villains or exposing closet Klansmen. Instead, it’s about coming to terms with the implicit bias that permeates society.

The majority of people on all sides of the color spectrum consider matters of race and racism as they would a rotten apple. To get at its core, America would have to eat a lot of crow and that’s hard to chew on. So we don’t take a bite.

Much of the institutional racism that exists was written right into America’s founding documents, perpetuated through intentional governmental policies (ex., slavery, Jim Crow), capitalism-gone-wild discrimination practices, with court rulings time and again upholding it all. And the band played on.

Why would anyone want to sink their teeth into something as putrefied and disgusting as the age old topic of race? Instead of looking at race as a rotten apple, look at it more like an onion. It’s cocooned by layers upon layers of truth and fiction, joy and pain, and pride and guilt. We may not be responsible for the insidious and often invisible systems still in place but we’re all are accountable.

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