Sunday, April 15, 2012

The color-blind society, part 3

This is the third post - the concluding post (the others are here and here) - of this series about race in America - by a white guy. Yeah, I'm a real expert, huh? But now, it's time to look at fixes.

As I said last time, this is about our American society, not about individuals. I'm not talking about blame here, and I'm certainly not talking about excuses. As the right-wing constantly reminds us, life isn't fair. And things are certainly a heck of a lot better than they used to be!

Maybe Trayvon Martin was shot because he was black, I don't know. But I'm not sure we should accept any excuse less than that. Certainly, there is still far too much racism in America. But minorities have a chance now, and individuals need to take that chance. And if they fail, they just need to keep on trying.

But, as I also pointed out last time, we are so far from a color-blind society, here in America, that the whole idea is laughable. After all, we've had centuries to get here, and there's no magic wand which will make all that disappear. Dreaming of a color-blind society is fine, but that's still going to be a fantasy throughout our lifetimes, at least. Let's not pretend otherwise.

And before I get started here, let me note that race - when it comes to human beings - isn't a scientific term. In other species, biologists speak of races - subspecies - sometimes, but we human beings don't have subspecies. In human beings, "race" is entirely a social concept, not a scientific one.

Still, this social concept, this cultural artifact, has had an immense influence here in America. In particular, the South's "peculiar institution" - slavery - affected every aspect of life there, and the generations of segregation and discrimination which followed didn't help at all. These things didn't stay in the South, either.

To this day, there might be nothing which has a bigger influence on your life than your race, with the possible exception of your gender. We are not color-blind. That doesn't mean we're all racists (not without defining the word so broadly that it loses all meaning), but there are still plenty of racists around, under any definition. We can acknowledge that, while still recognizing the enormous advances we've made.

Really, just think about how much we've changed, just in my lifetime. White people are the overwhelming majority in America, and we have always been on top here, just automatically. That was especially the case in the South, but not just there. So to change that was to give up power, for the white majority to give up that automatic advantage, which we've enjoyed for hundreds of years.

To think that we could have done this peacefully, made such wrenching changes democratically, without a violent revolution in our society, is just incredible. In my lifetime, we've gone from racial segregation to our first black president. Today, even our conservative political party supports racial equality. A politician speaking out in favor of segregation today - even in the South - would be almost as shocking as one speaking out in favor of slavery.

This really shows how strong, and how adaptable, America is. I don't think that even we who lived through this change really understand how remarkable it was. We have a long way to go, but the fact that we made it this far is really admirable, I'd say.

Of course, centuries of bigotry have had an effect. Generations of slavery, followed by generations of the worst kinds of discrimination, have had an effect. (Again, I'm mostly talking about African Americans here, although other minorities have also suffered.) Race may be only a social construct, but everything from income levels to educational attainment to crime rates shows the effects of our past mistakes.

So what do we do about that? Conservatives want to do nothing. That's the whole point of promoting this idea of a new "color-blind" society. If you don't see race, as Stephen Colbert humorously claims, then obviously you can't do anything to repair race-based inequality. Well, when you're already on top, it might not seem so important, huh?

But we'll never have a color-blind society as long as these inequalities stay so pronounced. So what can we do about it?

It might seem reasonable to make up for centuries of discrimination by giving racial minorities some clear advantage. Yeah, it's that terrible bugaboo, "reverse discrimination." Or, as supporters call it, affirmative action. Is it fair? Well, as the right-wing continually reminds us, life isn't fair. And the status quo is hardly fair, either. I mentioned some of that in my last post.

Of course, it's unpopular with much of the white majority, but that's no surprise. The popularity of government programs generally depends on how much benefit you're getting from them. And it might be divisive, but heck, everything is divisive these days. Even the Republican's own health care plan became divisive once the Democrats adopted it! These days, what isn't divisive? And note that it would probably be effective. That's important.

Unfortunately, it's hard to do without running afoul of the Supreme Court, especially given the far-right makeup of the court these days. And unpopularity does matter in a democracy. For all right-wingers talk about how life isn't fair, they tend to be the first to scream when it's unfair to them. But let's face it, fairness matters. We human beings do care when things aren't fair. And we should, too.

So let's look at this a little differently. What things aren't fair now? And what could we do to make them fairer? If you think about it, what we really want for racial minorities - indeed, for all Americans - is the opportunity to live a good life. As individuals, we'll never have complete equality. We aren't clones, and we don't want to become clones. But for different populations, we want an equal opportunity, or as equal as we can reasonably make it. Certainly, we want everyone to have a good chance at a happy, productive life.

We don't have that now. Children don't all have a decent chance at a good life. They don't all have a safe and secure - and loving - home environment. Our schools are funded locally, so children from poor neighborhoods often don't get the kind of education they need to succeed. Their environment is frequently neither safe nor encouraging. They don't have the same opportunities. Often, they're not even aware of the opportunities.

These aren't just minority kids, but there are a larger proportion of minorities who are poor. In fact, that's the whole point. If this weren't the case, we probably wouldn't be worrying about race in the first place. (Hopefully, we'd still be worrying about children.)

But if we set a goal of giving every child a good chance - the very best chance we can - the racial angle will tend to take care of itself. This would mean spending money - serious money - in poor neighborhoods, on everything from prenatal care to social services to crime prevention to education. And yes, this would mean helping adults, too, since the biggest influence on a child is his parents. It might be a generation before we saw the end results, but we already have evidence that these things will work.

And there's more. As I noted in my last post, there are advantages white people - and especially white men - receive which tend to get overlooked. For one thing, we tend to have white male bosses. And we often have opportunities for employment - good employment - because of who we know, or who our families know. These are institutional advantages, and they tend to perpetuate themselves over generations.

What we need is a slight counterweight to that - nothing much, just something which opens up opportunities for other people, too. I suggest that society simply expect - and, therefore, effectively require - diversity.

We already do this in the political arena. Even Republicans make a point of showcasing their diverse membership. Even when the GOP convention floor is lily-white, they make sure there's a diverse lineup in the good seats, where the cameras are aimed. (Is that unfair? Do their elderly white supporters get angry about not getting such attention? I don't know.)

And even Republican presidents make cabinet picks with a concern for diversity. That's expected these days. And it should be expected elsewhere, too.

If your school board doesn't hire teachers and principals, both men and women, of diverse race, that should be an immediate red flag. If a company hires no one but white men for executive positions, that should immediately raise questions. We should expect diversity, and not just a token here and there, either.

Part of this is because we should value diversity. We really should. We should recognize the advantages diversity gives us, advantages which give America a real competitive edge. But it's also a way to counteract the natural tendency of white men to hire people just like them. Generally speaking, minorities and women don't have a fair chance, since - for historical reasons - the vast majority of bosses are white men.

This isn't "reverse discrimination," though it could be called affirmative action, I suppose. It's just the recognition that America is a diverse nation and the expectation that this diversity be evident in our neighborhoods, our schools, our jobs, our government, even our board rooms.

We are starting to do this already. This isn't a big change I'm proposing. A far, far bigger change is my previous proposal that all children get a good start at life. That's where we're really failing these days. But together, these could lead us towards that color-blind society we all say we want, and do it fairly, too.

Plus, this could give our economy the biggest shot in the arm since the GI Bill of 1944. Like that, this would be an investment in our future. Really, it's high time we started investing in America again.


Jim Harris said...

I'm reading a book right now, Reconstruction by Eric Foner that people should read to understand the foundation of politics and race in our society. It's been almost a 150 years since the Civil War ended, but we're still dealing with the issues we faced in Reconstruction times. Much has changed, but a good part of our society is still brainwashed by prejudice.

And it's all so insanely stupid. The difference between a white person and a black person is about equal to the difference in any person wearing a blue shirt one day and a green one the next. It's Alice in Wonderland crazy.

Evidently, most people are xenophobic to the core. They can't get past animal level instincts.

WCG said...

Jim, we tend to be xenophobic, I think, but it doesn't have to be based on skin color, any more than whether a person is wearing a blue shirt or a green one.

On the one hand, looking almost exactly alike hasn't kept the Israelis and the Palestinians from hating each other, or the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, we've already seen considerable progress in this area.

From the very beginning of our country, America was the example that diverse people could live together as one. It was not, unfortunately, extended to everyone, but we still shouldn't forget what an advance that was.

Protestants and Catholics living together? Peacefully? English and Irish and Germans and French and Italians, living together without war? It wasn't perfect. When the Irish started coming here in large numbers, there were riots in some cities.

But these days, even the most right-wing of conservatives doesn't really care if a person's ancestry is Swedish or Norwegian or Bohemian or Scottish or... well, you get the point. And these right-wing Protestant evangelicals have been voting for two Catholics - Gingrich and Santorum - as their alternative to the Mormon they'll finally end up accepting.

When it comes to xenophobia, we've come a long way. We still have a long way to go, true. But the fact that we've made it this far should be encouraging.