Race and Division: A National Obsession
A man sees another man who seems to resemble a local burglary suspect. He confronts the man and a fight ensues. One man is dead and another is bleeding on the back of his head. A tragedy, no doubt. A difficult legal decision lies in front of a jury. Did the first man who followed the deceased individual kill another man needlessly and in cold blood? Or did he act in self-defense in a fight? The jurors hear opinions from everyone from experts to friends and family of both of the men involved. The six jurors discuss the evidence and decide that the man acted in self-defense.
On the surface this sounds like a complicated and tragic legal case, not something that the most powerful elected officials in the country would be commenting on. But that assumption falls flat on its face, because the gentleman who lost his life happened to be black. It’s a tragedy, plain and simple: a young man was killed, and his friends and family are now in a situation that nobody should go through. But the tragic shooting that occurred in Florida was swept to the center of the political stage because one could interpret what happened as having a direct relationship with our national obsession: race.
Blacks were pitted against Hispanics and Whites. President Obama said that Trayvon Martin, the young man who lost his life, could have been him thirty five years ago. Attorney General Eric Holder contemplated an investigation to try to catch the man who shot Martin, George Zimmerman, on civil rights charges.
The obsession with race goes far deeper than this trial. Minorities are favored in college admittance in the name of diversity. Many whites have a subconscious feeling that black men are not to be trusted. Black conservatives such as Herman Cain, E.W. Jackson, and Allen West are called “Uncle Toms” because they hold political views different than the majority of their community. By that standard a person has an obligation to people of their own ethnic background to hold certain political views. This idea is in all races: Lyndon Johnson, a white man from the southern state of Texas was considered a traitor to the south for supporting civil rights. Eric Holder called America “a country of cowards” for not having an “honest conversation” about race. He is wrong; America is obsessed with putting someone in a specific category based on the color of his or her skin. A rigid narrative is imposed. When a black man named Kenneth Gladney appeared at a conservative tea party rally, members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) asked “what kind of (racial slur) are you?” and proceeded to beat him brutally. The assumption is that Mr. Gladney holds political views that make him not a real black man.
Even issues that have little to do with race are interpreted as having a racial element to them. Salamisha Tillet, a professor from the University of Pennsylvania, said on the MSNBC program Melissa Harris Perry that “there’s a kind of moral panic, a fear [among people who oppose abortion] of the end of whiteness that we’ve been seeing a long time in that I think, you know, Obama’s ascension as president kind of symbolizes to a certain degree. And so I think that [reducing the number of abortions] is one response to that in a sense that there’s a decreasing white majority in this country and that women’s bodies and white women’s bodies in particular are obviously a crucial way of reproducing whiteness, white supremacy, white privilege.” This is a nonsensical argument. The abortion rate of minority communities is substantially higher than that of white communities, mostly because of the economic problems that often plague minority communities. It also lacks historical perspective: Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood (the largest provider of abortions in the US) supported eugenics, and stated her firm belief that other, non-white races were inferior and should be their population should be curtailed by controlling the birth rate among those demographics. This is not to say that Planned Parenthood supporters are racist; the vast majority of abortion rights advocates would find Sanger’s statements to be highly insulting. Her beliefs do prove that people who oppose abortion are not racist. One could certainly make the case that the pro-life movement is inherently misogynistic, but the idea that it is fed by racist views is absurd.
But that is how obsessed this country, and particularly the media of this country, is with the subject of race.
Bill O’Reilly, the most watched man in cable news, offered his opinions on the crime in the African American community, identifying the culture of that group, which is his view was often led by questionable role models, was causing problems in the community. Separating cultural influences based on race, which O’Reilly seemed to allude to, is a ridiculous point to make, but the response also bordered on the absurd. Many called O’Reilly racist for having, as Eric Holder put it “an honest conversation about race.”
Martin Luther King Jr. is a man admired by Americans of all races and political views. Barack Obama has mentioned his influence in numerous speeches. Al Sharpton hosts a search for exceptional people called Advancing the Dream. Noted conservative gun rights advocate Charlton Heston marched with King in the 1960s. John Kasich spoke of his admiration of Dr. King in his book Stand for Something. Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman said that participating in the I Have a Dream march “really did transform my life”. Republican congresswomen Michele Bachmann said that King “inspired Americans to live up to our core ideals” and called him an “American hero”.
As demonstrated above, individuals from all over the political spectrum, from progressives to moderates to hard right conservatives, admire Dr. King. In his I Have a Dream speech he made a statement that I wish that more Americans would pay attention to:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self evident. That all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even in the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls with be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
Much of what King said on that day in 1963 is true. The governor mentioned in his speech, George Wallace, had a change of heart in the late 1970s, saying “I was wrong. Those days are over, and they ought to be over.” In his final term as governor, Wallace, by then confined to a wheelchair after a 1972 assassination attempt, appointed a record number of African Americans to government positions.
Today we have an African American president. Condoleezza Rice, who was close enough to hear the explosion that ripped through the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, served as Secretary of State and has been mentioned occasionally as a possible presidential candidate. In 2013, Republican Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley (herself an Indian-American) appointed a black man, Tim Scott, as senator. He replaced Jim DeMint, who had won reelection in 2010 over a black challenger. In Virginia, a black preacher named E.W. Jackson is the nominee for lieutenant governor in the upcoming election there.
Sadly, the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. that people wouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin is still a ways from becoming reality. Affirmative Action gives preference to college applicants based on the color of their skin. It’s a policy that sits well with the absurd idea that minorities aren’t capable enough to get in on their own merit. Many people refuse to trust a man if he’s black. Political pundits reinforce the notion that people of certain ethnic backgrounds must vote a certain way as they predict that a more diverse country means a new era of Democratic dominance and then chastise people like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Herman Cain, and Allen West, as traitors to their race.
This trend is not exclusive to politics. Bill Lester, who in 2011 became the first black race car driver to win a Grand Am race, lamented that “Throughout my career, I’ve been described as a black driver. I can tell you that’s not how I perceive myself.” In film, the “token black guy” is often visible as a half hearted attempt to have a diverse cast. This trope was spoofed in the film Not Another Teen Movie where the character is often seen out of focus and at one point tells another black man to leave a party because “it’s just…I’m supposed to be the only black guy at this party”. The scene was hilarious, but it made the point that people in politics, entertainment, and sports are all too often seen by the color of their skin, and not by the content of their character.
We can change that. I encourage you to see people not as white or black or Hispanic but to view them in a way reflective of their character. Once we make that difficult but necessary change of thinking, we will be able to make wiser choices for our leaders. After all, if you are a mayor or a governor or a president, you’re the leader of everyone, not those that happen to share your skin color.