Thursday, September 22, 2005

Race In America II

This post is a follow up to my previous post under the title Race In America. It is probably best to read that post and my exchange in the comments section with Duff to get fully caught up on where we are.....which, I think is somewhere.

Duff and I, while coming at this issue from two opposite sides of the American experience have actually found some common ground in our discussion. We both agree that racism and hatred between the races has been greatly improved in our lifetimes. I think that both of us see this improvement as the recognition by white Americans of their obligation to overcome the specter of past abuses and crimes (which sadly were not always crimes in the past), and ensure that the hope and promise of our country, where "all men are created equal" is true for anyone who calls himself American.

We also agree that even today, after much progress, everything is still not well. Racism, while not as institutionalized as in the past remains an issue, but not nearly as significant of one as the much more common case of bias. This is not a distinction without difference, and it is bias that I believe sits behind much of what Duf discusses. As a result we have some good news, and we have some bad news. The good? Very few people appoint superiority on the basis of racial distinctions these days and encouragingly, those that do are viewed as mouth breathing fools.

The bad? Bias is with us to this day, and in my view will never fully be eliminated. It is a fact of human nature that people prefer to be with those whom they believe they are similar to. It goes without saying that this is an unevolved point of view that limits the human experience to a comfort zone that is neither educational nor expanding. Those who are unexposed to the new and different suffer from a limited world view and miss out on so much of that our short lives have to offer. They also deny the joy of their experience to the rest of us and leave us with little or no knowledge of the part of life that they keep off limits.

Duff and I have also been debating the merits (Duff) or lack thereof (me) of the man who I named "the idiot rapper" Kanye West. While we were subconsciously using Kanye as a comedic mechanism with which to skewer each other and maintain a lightness to our debate it occurred to me that Kanye actually stands as an insight into what I wanted to discuss in this post: If we can agree that bias is more the problem these days, than racism how can we minimize it so that we can become one America?

Not to put words in Duff's mouth, but I think I can say that for Duff and other black Americans Kanye stands as an artist who speaks to the black American experience, and sheds light on the plight of the subset of those who are trapped in an underclass existence. Unsurprisingly, my view is a bit different. For me, Kanye is very much the same thing that we've heard all of our lives. I won't quote lyrics here, but much of his music is about life in the black underclass; usually its hopelessness, at times its hopefulness, and most often how life is a struggle against the authorities or fellow Americans who happen to be white.

For the majority of white Americans like me who are committed to a truly color blind society we find artists such Mr. West and race baiters such as Jackson, Sharpton and the loathsome Farrakhan particularly frustrating. This is true not just because we don't like being called racists and haters, but because we see the polarizing affect this talk has on the black community. There is no doubt that there are hurdles that we as a society must clear in the future if we are to achieve our goal, but how can we be expected to do this if our partners are deeply influenced by men who speak only of our differences and the intransigence of the few who wish to keep us apart. How can the portion of black Americans in our society who are born into desperate conditions be expected to believe that a better life is possible if all of the messages of their church, their social leaders and their artists accentuate the obstacles.

I argued to Duff, perhaps a bit ineloquently, that Kanye's act has been done. So done. This is true of so much pop music, but Kanye and those with his talent have a greater obligation. The question before them is really more of a challenge. Is your talent to be little more than the product behind a marketing plan that profits by producing the same divisive drek that already fills our culture, or is your ability to create art that makes people stop and listen to be the inspiration for building a better life for those in need? So far it seems to me Kanye has chosen the former.

Jackson and the other two are lost. The have used their divisive tactics to build a power base and a national stage at the expense of those they claim to serve. Other leaders, some with new ideas will hopefully replace them.

I am intentionally focusing on the half of this equation that requires black Americans to make changes because my point to Duff and others is that we know there is bias out there. There are those of us that have tried to change our family, our friends and co-workers, and we have been very successful. Yet, there are times when we feel that our partners in black America are not fully with us. To this day we have to be so careful about what we say and how we say it. The danger of uttering the insult that was never our intent or even something that we could conceive is always present and causes even the most enlightened of us to behave differently. Hell, as I write this I question whether I should post it, or just let the whole thing go away, I gain nothing by writing these words and risk being branded as a racist.

This is critical point if we are to eliminate bias, because as much as bias is a white problem for not wanting to accept those that are different, it is also a black problem for wanting to remain different. Assimilation has been both the answer and the challenge for other ethnic groups in America and it will be no different for black Americans. Because of past sins against them it may be more difficult, but in my view it is the only answer. Some tough questions must be asked and answered if we are to succeed. Is it wrong to "talk white"? Why is it wrong and insulting for Bill Cosby to suggest that black Americans need to focus more on values and education? How much longer can black on black crime continue at its current rate? Why do so many view Condi and Colin as sellouts instead of role models?

More than anything, these are the cultural impediments to success for those black Americans stuck in an underclass. It is also these things that make it more difficult for black Americans that have moved into the middle and upper classes of America since they find it hard to reach back and help those coming up behind them.

This leads me to Duff’s excellent thoughts on the existence of different classes in America and their impact on our lives. Long ago, as an assignment for a marketing class of all things, I had to read “Class” by Paul Fussell. A tremendously insightful book about the behaviors of the different class subcultures in our country, Fussell’s premise was that Americans spend a tremendous amount of time denying that our society is stratified into different classes. He then went on to demonstrate not only that these classes exist, but also detailed the different behaviors of each.

My point in citing “Class” is that I wonder how much of actual bias experienced by black Americans and perceived as racial is actually the result of bias due to differing class levels. Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that all black Americans are of a lower class than white Americans. I am however, making the point that the vast majority of ALL Americans are in a lower class than somebody out there – it’s how the system works. Where a lower class white American might board a bus and see a wealthier woman clutch her purse a little tighter and think, “snooty bitch”, a lower class black American experiencing the same encounter might think “racist bitch”.

The question then becomes is class level bias wrong? I would argue that the answer is "not always". Most people who have visited here regularly know that I proudly proclaim myself as a snob. I think we should aspire to be our best, and I don’t particularly care to spend time with those that have lower standards than I do. This is not to say I won’t hang with people from other classes, I just want to hang with those in other classes that care about their appearance and can teach me a thing or two. Recognizing that these differences exist is a way of ordering our lives and in the example above keeping ourselves safe – I see no reason why the woman should not clutch her purse a little tighter in the presence of either person.

So both sides have work to do if we are to get our house in order. White Americans must continue to welcome others into their schools, businesses, communities and homes. Black Americans must resist the temptation to see racial bias into those events where it does not exist. Both groups must work to help black Americans continue to assimilate into our societal mainstream.

I remain hopeful for continued progress. The black middle class is expanding and new leaders are emerging while white Americans by and large remain committed to a multi cultural society. All of us just want to live in a world where we are all Americans - no descriptor needed.

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