Monday, August 03, 2009

Divided America

The recent brouhaha in Cambridge, MA brought to light some festering wounds here in America. It didn’t help that the President failed to calibrate his words well when he chimed in. But the issue of racial profiling and the divides between Americans who look differently from each other are significant.

I know. I know. We’re all supposed to be Americans and we should get rid of the descriptors of race but we don’t. The designations linger. They won’t go away soon.

Let’s face it. There are still deep, racial hurts and practices that are both overt and covert in our land of the free. I know racial profiling still happens. Keep your eyes open. You can see it in plain sight. Are people ever steered from buying homes in certain neighborhoods? Sure. It happens. Will two or three black youth out for a walk in a pre-dominantly white neighborhood attract attention? Absolutely. Will I feel like I don’t belong when I walk down the streets in Pilsen? I guarantee you that I will feel the color of my skin.

We live in a racially charged world. Still. It’s not make believe.

The truth is that when we don’t know someone as an individual, when we don’t know their heart and when we can only see the color of their skin certain attitudes and biases express themselves. We go to the nearest stereotype. And so, a black man in a white neighborhood is suspect, and white people don’t feel safe in the middle of the black community, and middle eastern folks feel the stares and the mistrust. We respond to the deeply held beliefs about race and culture that have been ingrained in us. The problem is that those things which have been ingrained in us aren’t necessarily true.

I'm convinced that race issues are going to be around for a good long while. As someone who is white I need to look at some things. On my list, at least, is the whole notion of ‘white privilege’. Why have so many of the cards been dealt in my favor over and over again? The field hasn’t been level for everyone.. Still isn’t. There are some deep rooted inequities in our system. But the truth is that I’ve benefited more often than not from those inequities.

Have I ever been treated differently in situations where I was in the minority? Absolutely. Sometimes better. Sometimes with disdain. Sometimes I’m stereotyped. I know what it’s like to be in a racially awkward situation. But the truth of the matter is that being conscious of my race is not the reality of my day to day life.

I also fully recognize that we are a land of immigrants. My Irish ancestors were looked down upon and often treated quite poorly. Each group that came to America has their story. Often enough people will say to me “We played by the rules and assimilated into the wider culture. Why can’t others do the same? We didn’t ask for set asides or handouts or entitlements. We made it by hard work and the sweat off our brow.” And then there’s the kicker follow up question. “Why can’t they?” They, of course, is code for anyone who is unlike us.

There’s no denying the hard work that immigrant groups contributed greatly to building this country. That should be applauded. Hard work and playing by the rules are good things. Did it help at all that the color of our immigrant skins was the color of the dominant culture a the time? Did it help that we could move into neighborhoods and assimilate easily? Did it help that historically that laws didn’t exclude us because of the color of our skin? Was that of any benefit? I think we were playing on a different field. It wasn’t necessarily easy but the truth is that the laws of our country didn’t keep my forefathers and mothers from enjoying the benefits of their labors. Others were not so lucky. We had access. Others didn’t. And even thought we’ve made great progress in the past 50 years the truth is we still have a ways to go.

And so when we look at other people and demand that they just gut up, pull their pants on one leg at a time and forge ahead, making good decisions, work hard and change their future we are speaking the language of the privileged and ignoring the reality of many. There’s lots of folks who are gutting up, working hard, and trying to make good decisions but the pressures of their current reality are so great that they feel like they’re running in place. We can say that they need a hand up not a hand out but the truth is that they need both and much more. If there was an easy solution we’d have found it by now.

Although the President’s back yard beer session felt awkward and contrived one piece of information emerged from it. The professor and the policeman had already sat down and begun to talk. Doesn’t surprise me. Everything I’ve been able to read indicates that they are both good men.

That’s what we’ve all got to do. Talk. Experience life together. Move intentionally out of our walled off daily lives and experience life in a racially mixed world. That won’t be easy. Many of the conversations will be hard. Stereotypes will need to be confronted. Realities faced. Difficult questions asked and answered.

One of my great fears is that the racial divide will get wider and wider. I sense a lot of anger that have racial implications if some of the mass e-mails I receive are any indication. That anger is going to lead to trouble unless we try to see the world through each other’s eyes. That’s just going to be hard face to face work. I wonder if we’re willing to get the job done. You see, we really don’t like to do what’s hard.

Last summer I went on the Justice Journey, a week long tour of the civil rights sights in the south. Our group was about half white, half black. Standing next to African American men and women, looking at old photos of demonstrations, of lynchings, and of lunch counter confrontations, was a ‘light bulb’ experience. My friends on the Journey experienced those pictures in a way that I either couldn’t or wouldn’t. Intellectually I had an understanding of such things and my heart had been touched through other experiences but something happened, in those moments in the civil rights museum, that grabbed my heart in brand new ways.

We all need to have our heart grabbed on these issues. All of us. Then maybe what comes out of our mouth will lead to healing not division.


Jeannette said...

Thank you Mike!! You are so right, it is so easy when you are on the side of the privileged to forget about the issues others have to face every day. I am not trying to blame anyone because I do understand that it is hard to walk in other peoples shoes. I am German and I grew up in Germany but I am mixed (half Italian). I was a minority. Italians in Germany can be compared to Mexicans here in the U.S. I did experience a lot of racism, even in my own family and as a kid it is very difficult to deal with that. I believe that is one of the reasons why I left Germany.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first moved to the U.S. about six years ago. To my surprise I didn’t encounter any difficulties here even though my accent was very heavy which definitely made me “different”. I felt for the first time totally accepted and at “home”. Soon however I had to realize even though I personally didn’t experience racism that there was still a lot of racism going on. Much more underlying and not as openly as in Germany though.
I heard a lot of comments like “they are all lazy” and “they just have to work harder”. I also agree with you that it is partially ignorance that leads to comments like this. Looking back in history especially to African American history and how people have been treated and still are treated then the current social situation for many African Americans is no surprise. It has been and it is still much more difficult for minorities like African Americans or Hispanics than it is for Caucasians here in the U.S. I think ongoing segregation and racism is shameful for a country which was built by immigrants.
However, I believe that fear is the root of racism; the fear of the Unknown and the Different. My boyfriend is African American and especially in the beginning my white friends didn’t really know how to react. I think they’ve tried to make me feel comfortable (or themselves) by saying things like “you know we have other African American friends” and things like “we hope you know that he is always welcomed at our house”. I was hurt and I felt really bad for him because I know that I would have never heard any of those comments if he would have been white.
It just saddens me to know that so many people still judge others by the difference of their skin color or culture. It is a shame that we have to have conversations like this in 2009 … How many more years of racism and how many Holocausts do we have to live through until we finally understand and accept that we are ALL THE SAME!!
I hope and pray that people will understand and appreciate the gift God gave us by creating us in so many different shapes and colors … what an exciting and beautiful world we are living in … We could learn so much about God by accepting his creation … accepting each other!!! … Hopefully some day we will.
Thank you again Mike for sharing your thoughts and feelings with us … Jeannette

Mike said...

Thanks Jeannette. Thoughtful comments. Appreciate your taking the time to respond.

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