Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The color-blind society

Stephen Colbert has this bit where he claims not to see race. "Now, I don't see race … People tell me I'm white, and I believe them, because I own a lot of Jimmy Buffett albums."

I've often thought that's a hilarious parody of the right-wing, who tend to claim that racism is a thing of the past - indeed, the only real bigotry these days is directed at white males, the poor things. Can't we just have a color-blind society?

This came up in comments in an earlier post, and I thought it deserved its own post. "Practicing identity politics and government sanctioned discrimination won't create a color-blind society." Well, maybe not. But does that imply we should do nothing?

It's not a coincidence that the people who historically benefited from racism tend to be fine with just call it quits. Hmm,... perhaps this story might help:

Suppose you hit a man in the head with a rock and take everything he owns - not just his wallet and his watch, but his home, his property, even his identity. Whenever he tries to stand up, you hit him again, knocking him back down.

This goes on and on. You take the man's shoes. You take his coat. Every so often, you kick him, just for the hell of it. Just seeing the man, lying there bleeding into the dirt, makes you mad.

But finally, for whatever reason, you've had enough. "You know," you tell the man, "maybe that was wrong of me. I'll tell you what, let's just shake hands and call it good." Now, you might be OK with that, but how do you think your victim would feel about it?

OK, OK, I know what you're going to say. You didn't do anything like that. Why put the blame on you? Well, my story is about society, not you, personally. But you're right. The really, really bad racism, most of it, happened years ago.

After all, it's Christian to blame the children for the sins of their parents, and if there's one thing I'm not, it's Christian. Some god punishing Adam and Eve's descendents, generation after generation, for their misdeeds (or his)? Yeah, I agree that's crazy. So let's change the story a bit:

Suppose that, years ago, your father had murdered a man and taken all he owned - his money, his land, his home. Suppose he'd kicked the man's wife and children out of the house, forcing them to live on the street.

And not just that, but your father made sure they stayed in poverty, too. He kept them from getting work, kept them from getting a good education, kept them from living in a nice neighborhood. So they barely survived.

Sometimes, there wasn't even food for the children, let alone money for books. They had to live in the worst part of town, a crime-ridden hell-hole. The local school system was a joke. And your father made sure there was no way out for them.

But he was good to you. You didn't get everything you wanted, of course, but you had plenty of food, books, even a computer. You got braces on your teeth. You went to good schools. You had a private tutor when you needed a little extra help. Your father got you into a good university - and paid cash for it, too. And his business associates helped you get a start in your career.

Then, one day, after your father had died, peacefully, respected by all, you were driving down the street and noticed a man standing at the bus stop. It was the youngest son of that man your father had killed. You know, you felt kind of bad about that.

You'd heard that the man's wife had died of some disease. Well, they couldn't afford a doctor. Her daughter had been raped and murdered, the older son killed in prison. And the younger one was looking pretty ragged. Gee, why didn't he get a nice suit? Didn't he have any self-respect?

Still, you felt kind of bad about past events, so you stopped. "Hey, that was a bad thing my old man did. I guess our families kind of got off on the wrong foot, huh? Let's just call it even. No hard feelings on either side, OK?"

"Oh, and that bus doesn't run here anymore. We job creators can't afford to subsidize the deadbeats, you know." And with a cheery wave, you drive off, happy that you've finally put that ugly mess behind you.

And that ragged man at the bus stop? How do you think he'd feel about that? Grateful? After all, now he can live anywhere he likes, not that he can afford to live anywhere else. And he could get a job now, maybe, if there were jobs available. And it wouldn't be a very good job, because he'd never been able to get an education.

But what else does he expect? He's got the same opportunities you have now, doesn't he? Of course, you're on top and he's on the bottom, but that's not your fault. That's ancient history.

OK, this is just a story. And it's not about you, personally, or any other individual. This is society I'm describing, the different experiences based entirely on race.

But can you see how that might not seem very fair? Sure, life isn't fair. But it's a lot easier to shrug that off when it's unfair in your favor. And you'd be aghast at the idea of actually doing something here, wouldn't you? After all, it's not your fault, so asking anything from you just wouldn't be fair!

Heh, heh. Yeah, you might not like this story much better than the first one. But let's get back to the real world now.

Speaking of just the black experience in America (other minorities have their own issues), they suffered the worst kind of abuse for centuries. This went on for generation after generation. And now, all you want to say is, "Hey, get over it! Let's just forget the past and start over. From now on, we'll compete as equals, me up here and you down there."

That's bad enough. But, of course, this isn't a color-blind society, not even close. So your fine words are a lie. You're not going to be competing as equals, and you know it. You still have every advantage. As William Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It isn't even past."

Look at employment, for example. Forget about past educational opportunities. Forget about differing experiences and expectations. Forget about all past issues, and focus just on today. The vast majority of people doing the hiring today are white men. The vast majority of bosses are white men. The vast majority of business owners are white men.

Some of them - only a few, I hope - are blatantly racist. Many more don't think of themselves as racist, but they still buy into racist stereotypes. And few of them feel comfortable around black people. They don't know any blacks, or at best only casually, and the jobs they offer black people (and other minorities, true - this is just an example) will tend to be different from the jobs they offer white people.

After all, how do you get a job? In many cases, it's who you know, not what you know. I used to work for a company that had very desirable jobs available (high pay, good benefits, dangerous, but no particular education or experience required). The joke was that you had to be Catholic to work there, but it was hardly a joke. The man doing the hiring gave the best jobs to people he knew - or to their sons, at least.

All of them were Catholic, because he socialized with people from his church. Needless to say, they were all white, too. He might hire other people for menial jobs, but the really good ones went to his friends.

These were high-paying jobs, at least for blue-collar work. They came with health care and retirement benefits. There were many opportunities for advancement. Yet they required nothing but good health and the ability to learn. They were the kind of jobs, increasingly scarce these days, which could raise a man well into the middle class.

If this man had been black, maybe he would have hired his black friends. Of course, there would have been a real uproar about that! In fact, realistically, he wouldn't have been able to do it, certainly not here in Nebraska.

But hey, how many African Americans have positions like that, anyway? Some, but black people aren't anywhere near proportionally represented as business executives. Well, we haven't had a color-blind society, have we? And we sure as hell don't have one now.

America is still segregated. It's not officially segregated, and that's a real advance. But in practice, we're still, to a large extent, racially segregated. Well, the 1964 Civil Rights Act didn't completely rearrange the world, did it? The past isn't even past. We live with the past every single day. Attitudes that were formed in the past tend to stick around, and even be handed down to the next generation.

There's still a lot of racism in Nebraska. It's quite common. With my skin color and my age, I hear it. Sometimes, it's blatant. White men generally look over their shoulder first, complaining bitterly about the "political correctness" that keeps them from calling a spade a spade. But that's becoming rarer. Mostly I just hear that from elderly racists.

More commonly, it's just "jokes" and comments which buy into stereotypes. Yeah, those people are lazy, right? Always looking for a handout! Of course, they don't actually know any of "those people."

A surprising number of these racists don't know they're being racist, indeed they'd indignantly deny it. They don't intend to be racist. Well, some think that it's OK to be a little bit racist. After all, we all know about those people, don't we?

It's funny, but many of the people I worked with just assumed that a white man would get any good job that was available. That was just normal. Even if the boss hired a personal friend, that was no big deal. Well, of course he hired someone he'd knew would do a good job, right?

But if a woman were hired (for anything more than answering phones), or a racial minority, well, clearly they were getting preferential treatment, right? Wasn't that "reverse discrimination" terrible? A white man was under a terrible disadvantage these days, wasn't he? And note that you'd hear this from a person who got his start on a good career because his parents knew the boss!

My point is that it doesn't take deliberate racism. Unconscious assumptions - even as little as seeing a white man as the norm - make a big difference. Do we just ignore all that? Do we ignore the past and the present, and decide that everything is all fine now?

White men are no longer automatically on top, as they used to be, but they still have some huge advantages. It's really pretty funny to hear white men whine about what discrimination they face, when they've just lost a little of the overwhelming advantages they used to have. But that's human nature, I guess.

The big question is what we do about it. That's not easy. Our mistakes of the past often leave us with no good options - certainly, no popular options. Simplistic answers won't do it. This is a difficult situation, and if we want to fix it (most people apparently don't), it won't be easy. But let's not pretend that there's no problem at all.

When I have the time, I'll see if I can write something about possible fixes. But I think it's a good start to recognize that just pretending we don't see race isn't going to cut it. Get real. We all see race.

Note: Part 2 is here.


Cinnamonbite said...

What if all of society went to the same government run free public schools and every single person had the exact same choice and chance to do better for themselves than their parents did for themselves?
There was no one hitting anyone over the head with rocks or keeping anyone else from succeeding, just some kids didn't have a lot of interest in reading or learning and didn't apply themselves while other kids took their education to heart, wanted to be something in the future and worked hard. Some kids even worked harder than everyone else, did more than the teachers expected of them.
And oddly, when all these kids grew up, some of them were worthless and landed in jail or on welfare and some of those kids moved quickly up the corporate ladder and into great careers and lives.
And it doesn't matter what color anyone's skin is because blaming others for your own poor choices is a juvenile lie you tell yourself.

I grew up dirt poor so I just don't suffer from any of that rich white guilt so many people labor under in their adult lives. You have my sympathies though.

WCG said...

What if? You didn't finish your thought, Cinnamonbite. Yeah, it would be nice if that were the case, but what's your point?

Anyway, those stories weren't about individuals, but were allegories of society. Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery and became a famous author and orator. But that doesn't mean that slavery was OK, because slaves could occasionally escape and overcome terrible prejudice to succeed.

Or look at it in another way. Poverty is associated with crime. If you grow up poor, you're far more likely to turn to crime than if you grow up wealthy. But that doesn't give anyone an excuse for committing crimes, just because they grew up poor.

You see the difference? Society makes a huge difference in crime rates, teen pregnancy, and a host of other issues. But individuals still have a choice. It's not one or the other. You need to take control of your personal life. But if we want to improve lives, we still need to talk about society.

Re. your comment about "rich white guilt," you'll have to explain that. Perhaps you equate a dislike of racism with guilt? I'd say it's more likely to be empathy, or just ethics and morality. And none of those are reasons for sympathy.

In fact, you have my sympathy if you lack them.

WCG said...

Cinnamonbite, FYI, I elaborated a little more on my reply in Part 2.

Unfortunately, that's going to mean I'll need a Part 3 to finish this up. :)