I wrote a personal story on my feelings regarding racial injustice within my Church earlier this month. It was a personal story, a conversion account of sorts, about how I was pushed into realizing that standing on the sidelines wasn’t an option anymore. For the most part, I feel that my personal opinions and actions with regard to combating racism is best done face to face, in an intimate manner with those I personally know. Outside of that, I think my role is best limited to prodding acquaintances and strangers towards self-analysis and reflection in the hopes that could be a catalyst for personal improvement. So, that’s why I use this blog or church & work opportunities to encourage others to evaluate themselves.
The area where I personally am most uncomfortable advocating against racism is in public policy. I’m socially conservative with a libertarian bent when it comes to government power. I worry about overreach and unintended consequences. I guess that’s why I abandoned political science after completing it as an undergraduate degree and moved to counseling. I’d rather help a PERSON through the process of change than try and figure out how to change a group of PEOPLE.
This week though, with the trifecta of Paula Dean, Trayvon Martin, and the Voting Rights Act changes, I thought I would revisit the idea of racism and power and share some of my thoughts about how to move forward.
When it comes right down to it, a person’s skin color is nothing more than an indicator of someone’s geographic heritage. That’s pretty much it. It technically is no more determining in a person’s destiny, potential, or significance than hair color or eye color. It is simply a reflection of where one’s ancestors lived 2000-4000 years ago. Unfortunately, our human tendency to categorize and rank everything means that cultural influences and social structures have made it so that being born of a certain skin color can have drastic and significant impacts on a person’s life outcomes.
This is, for lack of a better word, unfortunate. Every person born has been endowed with a consciousness that deserves a chance to explore and find his or her greatest potential. No exterior marker of any kind, whether skin color or any other distinguishing feature, ought to barricade a person from opportunities. Yet, we don’t live in a perfect world and we are still dealing with the ramifications of generations of inequality as well as lingering vestiges of racism still today.
It’s a big problem, and it requires a big solution. Numerous things have been tried in the last 50 years and I would argue that there has been measurable success. How much of that success can be attributed to public policy versus changing social norms, or some combination thereof, I can’t say. I hope that most people will acknowledge the improvements in our society that have taken place, despite our ongoing shortcomings.
When in comes to our current shortcomings, I think that in today’s society most white Americans fall into one of four categories: 1) people who are still racist, 2) people who realize that racism is wrong but don’t really worry about it beyond that, 3) people who have studied the issue greatly are very concerned about systemic power differentials built into our society and culture, & 4) people who foment racial tension to secure positions of power. I personally believe that groups 1 & 4 are very small; they’re large enough to exist and cause problems, but quantifiably minuscule. I personally think that most people fall into group 2; in fact, I think that most people who think they are part of group 3 are probably technically in group 2. That leaves group 3, and I have no idea how big that group really is. I do think that American liberal groups portray themselves as having a monopoly on people who think that way, and I’ll concede that they have a majority. However, conservatism and being in group 3 do not have to be a contradiction, but I have to concede that most conservatives, by a huge margin, are in group 2.
Now of course all this depends on definitions. It’s hard to quantify racism in someone and there are all sorts of psychological measurements out there to ferret out the types of racism that might linger a person, such as overt vs covert racism. Still, I think if you were to get honest answers from people about how they feel about other people and about racism, most would land somewhere in group 2.
Back to one of this week’s racism trifecta, I would actually argue that Paula Dean is in group 2. I don’t think anyone believes that she harbors ill feelings towards people with darker skin. I think she just doesn’t think about it that much. In addition, she has to rectify within her own personal narrative that she is the descendant of slave holders, and that can be a challenging thing to overcome. Additionally, being in group 3 is actually kind of hard; you have to constantly self-analyze your behavior and be able to have meta-cognitions. So sticking in group 2 is usually the easy way to go until a moment of ignorance gets you into trouble. Then, unless you find a mentor who has multicultural competencies, you’re probably going to keep putting your foot in your mouth as you try and apologize. Those apologies will be along the lines of “racism is bad, I know that, and trust me I’m not a racist.” People who have done this, Paula Dean being a prime example, understand that they cannot prejudice someone based on skin color, yet they continue to ignore the power they enjoy simply because of their skin color and they never address it, or even consider it.
The thing is though, is that the group 2 people kind of have a point, they are just not being patient enough in the process and they do not take into account some of the realities of 2013 America. I truly believe that someday skin color will be as irrelevant to a person’s societal position as eye color is. I don’t know how many generations it will take to get there, but I think humanity is on that trajectory. Let’s all face it though, right now, in 2013, we’re nowhere close to that ideal. We might be better than we were in 1963, but we still self-segregate, few of us exchange in honest dialogue, and we assume ill-will in each other when considering laws and regulations to address systemic power differentials. I think that is why I feel such discomfort engaging in the public policy discussions, I don’t want my motivations misunderstood. I have finally reached a point in my life when I feel I can comfortably and competently enter a multi-cultural dialogue with a person or group of people. I also think as we train more people on both sides to be able to do that without offense or contempt at disagreement, then when we look at public policy changes in the future, they can be viewed as collaboration instead of the squabble for power and influence it tends to be today.