Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How Racist is America, Really?

On this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr.King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” I guess it should have been expected that we would be inundated with stories telling us how rascist we still are as a society, and how that racism has become less overt as if people are intentionally trying to hide their racism. Enough of this already. Of course it is always possible to find anecdotal evidence of racist events, and policies such as the Republican push on voter ID clearly has a racial dimension, though personally I think their efforts are driven by socioeconomics and not race.
I am reminded by that classic Marx Brothers line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?” Having spent 20 years teaching at perhaps the most racially and socioeconomically diverse school in New Jersey, I have a somewhat advantageous perspective to observe this issue. What I found in school is, I believe, reflective of the greater society. What I did find is that in non-academic settings, our students had little problem conversing and working with students from other racial groups. This does not mean prejudice had been extinguished, only that it had no influence on a person’s behavior, and isn’t that what truly matters most. At lunch, another setting where students were free to associate with whomever they wanted, there was admittedly strong evidence of self-segregation. Such behavior has also been shown to exist among adults when they choose a place to live. This self-segregation did not preclude students from getting up and talking with other races, but the evidence is pretty clear that self-segregating behavior is common among all warm blooded animals; those who see it should just chill out.
The only setting where racial tension existing was in the classroom, but only when the conversation turned to issues of race. This is the result of people not wanting to be labeled racist by staking out positions other people might find objectionable. More to the point, this anxiety was typically expressed by people who would otherwise never be considered racist; they frankly did not want to “muddie the waters” and create misunderstanding.
It is clear to me that this nation has done an excellent job moving away from our racist past, but that there is still work that must be done to reinvestigate public policies that show evidence of disparate treatment. I suspect, though, that this investigation will likely show that on issues of disparate treatment, class prejudice rather than racial animus will be the true source of concern.

The only people convinced that America is still steeped in racism are those who profit by it. They get their face on television, they get to run workshops, they get to sell their wares. Meanwhile, the truth about racism gets lost in the fog of false perception.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

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