Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The color-blind society, part 2

Hmm,... there's been some misunderstanding of my previous post. I was talking about societies, not individuals. My stories were just allegories. Nothing I said denied the role of individual responsibility.

If you steal something, burglarize a company or mug a man in the street for his wallet and watch, the fact that you grew up poor, the product of a broken home, in a crime-ridden hell-hole, would be no excuse. None. Completely immaterial. Plenty of people who grew up in similar circumstances aren't thieves (and some who grew up in comfortable surroundings are).

Nevertheless, to a large extent, people are products of their environment (infants aren't born as either criminals or law-abiding citizens), and we know that such conditions will breed crime. That doesn't deny individual responsibility, not in the slightest. These are two different issues.

Conservatives tend to focus on individual responsibility, and they have a point. Take teen pregnancies, for example. If you don't want to have kids, not having sex is a very effective way of accomplishing that. I mean, absent rape, you're pretty well guaranteed not to have children, assuming you stick to your pledge not to have sex.

It's kind of like how you're pretty well guaranteed not to be fat if you eat right and exercise enough. (I'm sure that all of my conservative readers have no problem maintaining an idea body-weight, since it is, after all, just a matter of doing what you know you should do.)

At any rate, in that respect, abstinence works perfectly on the individual level. You just have to avoid sex. Problem solved. At the society level, though, abstinence-only sex education fails horribly at preventing unwanted pregnancies. Say what you want about personal responsibility - after all, you're right - if you actually want to lower the rate of teenage pregnancies, you have to find society-level solutions.

Here's another, perhaps more pertinent, example. Frederick Douglass was born a slave, but he ran away from his master and overcame widespread bigotry to become a respected author and orator. Does that make slavery the ideal way to raise a child? Does it even mean that slavery wasn't so bad, since other slaves could have done the same thing?

Of course not. It takes an exceptional individual to accomplish such things (not to mention a great deal of luck), and slavery simply isn't an effective way for a society to produce exceptional individuals.

Note that I join with Republicans everywhere in my admiration for Barack Obama, who overcame a broken home and a mixed-race heritage in the racist 1960s (this at a time when interracial marriages were still illegal in most of America) to become our first black president. Heck, he's even thin and physically fit! Clearly, he's the poster child for right-wing notions of individual responsibility.

But not everyone is that exceptional. (Some people even carry around a few extra pounds, I hear.) We can say that broken homes and racial discrimination are not ideal for children without denying that some people can overcome such things.

So, when we talk about the effects of racism - indeed the effects of generations of slavery, racial segregation, and terrible bigotry - we're talking about the lingering effects of past societies. Nothing in this discussion denies individual responsibility. But we're talking about society.

Current society, too. You don't really think that racism has disappeared, do you? In a March poll, only 52% of Mississippi Republicans said that interracial marriages should be legal. They weren't asked if it was ideal, or if they would, themselves, marry someone of another race, or even if they'd welcome such a person into their family as a son- or daughter-in-law. They were asked if it should be legal.

And note that Mississippi is solidly Republican these days. These are the people who control Mississippi. A color-blind society? I don't think so!

In fact, this is exactly why Stephen Colbert's bit about "not seeing race" is so funny, because it's so completely ridiculous. That's exactly why he parodies the notion. Racism is everywhere in America. Look at the hysteria about Barack Obama - the "birther" idiocy, the lunatic claims that he's a Kenyan, a Muslim, a socialist. (That last label would probably be applied - just as falsely - to any moderate Democrat, but the others are all about race.)

It's not that America hasn't progressed. A conservative commenter on a previous post said, "You want a colorblind society. So do I." Think about how remarkable that is. In my lifetime, the conservative position has become the liberal position.

Sure, there's still widespread racism, but when I was born, we were debating segregation. Heck, we were hardly even debating it. It was the official policy of the entire South, and much of the North, too!

These days, even the right-wing at least pays lip service to racial equality. You can be fired from the National Review for being too racist. Republican National Conventions take great pains to showcase the (rather limited) racial diversity of their membership, and so do even Republican presidents in their Cabinet picks.

Keep in mind that white Southerners used to be Democrats, and African Americans used to vote Republican, so the two parties have kind of switched around on this. But it's still the case that liberals have dragged conservatives forward. They were kicking and screaming the whole way, but we did it.

And we've done it before, too. We did it with slavery. We did it with women's suffrage. (And we're rapidly doing it with gay rights.) We should recognize those advances, because they show us what we can accomplish with long, hard work.

Nevertheless, the idea that we have a color-blind society, or that we're anywhere close to a color-blind society, is just laughable. That's what makes Stephen Colbert's bit so funny. And to pretend that we can just ignore race now, because we all want a color-blind society, right?... well, that's completely ridiculous.

In fact, should we even be talking about a color-blind society? A color-blind society is kind of like a world without war - or maybe, for Christians, like Jesus returning to set things straight. It might be a nice dream, but that's all it is. It certainly won't happen in our lifetime, and we really don't want to set policy based on it!

Sure, it's a nice goal. It's something to work towards, eventually. But we no more want to assume that it's imminent than we'd want to start dismantling our military, unilaterally. We need to be more practical than that.

And maybe we need more practical goals. Maybe we should look at what we want to accomplish in the short- and medium-term. Maybe we should look at problem-solving, rather than just ignoring the problem completely.

Well, I'm out of time again. I guess I'll have to make this a trilogy. I'll try to wrap things up in the next part of this, whenever I can find the time for that. :)

Note: Part 3 is here.

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