In my recent piece on President Obama’s press briefing about race following the Zimmerman verdict, I wrote:
“There is not one white person alive, myself included, who can even remotely begin to understand what Barack Obama was saying Friday afternoon; who can appreciate what it must be like to be profiled as suspicious for simply walking down the street and doing absolutely nothing wrong. Not once did my parents ever have to caution me about how I was dressed or worry about whether I would be stopped either by a cop or someone else in authority simply because of who I was or how I looked. That cross was never theirs to bear. Indeed, none of us have ever known that kind of institutionalized racism.“
That is certainly true. And yet, it does seem odd that most of the strongest opinions about this tragedy have come from those very same white people, present company included. I think I know why; at least I hinted as much later on in the piece:
“There are those who will say that racism isn’t as overt as it once was, and they are right. For instance, when Paula Deen used the “N” word during an interview, it cost her her job. A few years back, Don Imus was fired for using racially insensitive words to describe the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team on his morning radio show. Clearly there are lines the nation has drawn that, when crossed, have consequences.“
I wanted to elaborate on this point a bit more, if I may. And this time, my whiteness is very much relevant.
Most of the late baby boomers in this country – that is those born during the 1960s – have never seen, firsthand, the deplorable discrimination that was visited upon the African-American population. Most of us knew about this through film documentaries or later in movies like Mississippi Burning, which if you’ve never seen, you owe it to yourself to watch. It might well be the definitive work chronicling what life was like in the Jim Crow South.
But as shocking and disturbing as that movie was, most of us were but babies when the last vestige of that way of life was being put out of its misery. Thanks to the Civil Rights Act, conditions for African-Americans did improve, if only incrementally. Today the South looks nothing like it did 50 years ago. And thank God for that, but that’s also part of the problem. Many of us have no real historical markers from which to draw a reference point. All we know of the South is what we see today, and while some of that is certainly whacked, by no means does it bear any resemblance to that dreadful past.
The result was that most of us grew up with rose-tinted glasses when it came to racial injustice. The overt gave way to the covert. That isn’t to suggest that racial slurs were never used. Far from it. As I mentioned in that same piece, the Long Island neighborhood I grew up in was hardly a melting pot. It was not unusual to hear the “N” word occasionally thrown around. I remember as a teenager how uncool it was to be caught listening to any black music, unless it was Hendrix. When I was a boy, I couldn’t get enough of Smokey Robinson or the Temptations or even the Jackson 5. It’s funny how kids grow up, isn’t it?
Throughout most of the 1970s and ’80s, conditions continued to improve for black America and the temptation among many white Americans was to conclude that racism was, if not dead, then certainly in its death throes. To be honest, I certainly didn’t give the matter much thought, even as I continued to vote Democrat in virtually every election. I simply wasn’t paying attention to more subtle ways that racism was evolving and lingering within society. The income gap between the ultra rich and the middle class became wider and wider during the ’80s and even into the ’90s. If white America could feel the pinch, then black America was getting squeezed but good.
The problem was both equal parts perspective and deception. Let’s look at deception first. There were two pretty significant financial booms that lifted the economy over the last two decades. The former came courtesy of the dot-com surge of the late ’90s; the latter the housing bubble of the mid ’00s. Both were temporary fixes to an ailing economy that had been in decline for the better part of three decades. When the housing bubble finally burst in ’07, the economy started heading south but fast.
The Great Recession of ’08 was the worst economic upheaval since the Great Depression and it devastated many hard-working people of all colors, but particularly blacks and Hispanics. It didn’t help matters that minorities were being singled out as the primary cause of the recession. If only they hadn’t bought homes they knew they couldn’t afford than the rest of us wouldn’t have suffered so much, went the bogus charge.
Of course you know who the “us” is. That would be the hard-working white middle class of this country who supposedly grew up ignorant of racial bigotry, but who now had no problem expressing their contempt for what they viewed as the freeloading riff-raff who got all the breaks while they had to bust it just to make ends meet.
And that brings us to perspective. Reverse discrimination has become the latest catchword for many whites who are growing more and more resentful at what they feel are undeserved gains that black America is getting on their dime. How many times have I had to hear some idiot mouth off that the only racism that exists in America today is against white people? Too many, I’m afraid. Whenever an African-American or Hispanic lands a job or gets into a university ahead of what we are told is a much more deserving white candidate, it’s like the sky comes crashing down.
The landmark case of Fisher v. University of Texas was a case in point. Never mind that under the university’s own guidelines, Fisher still wouldn’t have gotten in – she only graduated in the top 12% of her class, not the required 10% – the fact that a black student got in was enough to set off the legal fireworks, not to mention the waterworks. The poor thing had to suffer through four years at Louisiana State University. Imagine her indignity if she didn’t have the opportunity to go to college at all like a lot of African-Americans and Hispanics, or if, when she got out, she had to contend with a 19 percent unemployment rate like African-Americans and Hispanics do on a daily basis.
Cry me a river, sweetie!
Perspective has become a four-letter word in White America today. A lack of perspective has prevented many whites from not only having a true understanding of the historical context of racism, but of appreciating its lingering effects in the culture. It also has prevented any kind of empathy from developing. It is through empathy that people learn to appreciate the suffering of others.
Are there instances where blacks and Hispanics are afforded special treatment based on their race? Of course there are. Is such treatment the norm in American society? Not by a long shot. The facts are irrefutable. Despite the odd exception or two, whites continue to enjoy a privileged status in the United States. I have not met one white person who would trade places with a black or Latino. Not one.
But that has not kept the peanut gallery from crying in its beer. Witness the Zimmerman defense team after the verdict of not guilty came down. One of the lawyers actually had the gall to say that had their client been black he never would’ve been charged. Talk about rubbing salt in an open wound.
But he was hardly alone. Over the last seven days, I have paid close attention to a lot of the comments about the trial and have come to an unalterable conclusion. Apart from the fact that the verdict was celebrated by many, apparently the only way some whites can come to grips with race in this country is for the rest of us to shut up about it. When Obama commented about the verdict, he was accused by the far right of playing the race card. When an African-American president can’t even speak about the struggles of his own race without causing a hissy fit, you know the nation is in denial mode.
To be honest, I don’t know if white America (or at least that part of white America that keeps embarrassing itself) can ever get beyond this phase. For centuries, whites had it all. Sharing is not in our nature. I can only speak from my perspective. I’m not feeling terribly optimistic about the future.
To even suggest with a straight face that the only racism in America today is reverse racism is to display a stunning degree of ignorance with respect to the role race has always played in our history. And, sadly, it is an ignorance many whites wear proudly.