What is the truth about race and racism in America? It is a difficult subject, and an honest, in-depth discussion of the issue is usually avoided. Former Attorney General Eric Holder accused us of being a “nation of cowards” for our avoidance of a frank discussion of race in America. Perhaps he was right.
Each of us is a member of a particular racial group and was reared in a certain cultural setting. No matter how we strive to be accurate and even handed, we approach this topic with certain preconceptions and biases. Nevertheless, we should be as truthful and objective as possible.
As I write this, I am very conscious that a few of my statements may be offensive to some people. I do not wish to offend. I only seek truth and understanding. I would be most pleased to receive other facts and other points of view on the subjects I discuss here. I should also say that I wrote the following essay shortly after the Baltimore riots of 2015. At that time I tried to get it published by some magazine or newspaper without success. I could not stir up even so much as a rejection slip. Maybe it is not good enough for publication. Or perhaps Eric Holder was right, and editors are simply afraid of the subject. Now I have a blog, so here it goes.
What is the meaning of the word race? Merriam-Webster has many definitions of race. The two definitions that fit most logically into this discussion are 1) A class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics. (Another word that is often used to describe this sort of grouping is culture.) 2) A category of humankind that shows certain distinctive physical traits.
James Davis, a sociologist, defined race, culture, and ethnicity as follows:
“As defined in physical anthropology and biology, races are categories of human beings based on average differences in physical traits that are transmitted by the genes not by blood. Culture is a shared pattern of behavior and beliefs that are learned and transmitted through social communication. An ethnic group is a group with a sense of cultural identity, such as Czech or Jewish Americans, but it may also be a racially distinctive group. A group that is racially distinctive in society may be an ethnic group as well, but not necessarily. Although racially mixed, most blacks in the United States are physically distinguishable from whites, but they are also an ethnic group because of the distinctive culture they have developed within the general American framework.”
African Americans in the United States are descended from persons with distinctive physical traits, most notably dark skins. Today, however, many African Americans are not identified by skin color but by their association with black culture.
Except for the relatively small percentage of American citizens who descended from one of the indigenous tribes, the United States is made up of people who migrated here from other parts of the world during the last 400 years. In the early years of colonization and nation building the primary influx into this country was from Great Britain and Northern Ireland. At the same time, beginning in 1620 and continuing up until the first few years of the 19th Century, there was the importation of about a half million African slaves. Later came the growth in immigration from southern Ireland and western Europe, followed by waves of people from Italy and eastern Europe. More recently there has been a marked increase in the population inflow from Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East.
And what are our races? The United States Census Bureau uses the following classifications: White or Caucasian, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, some other race, two or more races, and Hispanic or Latino (of any race).
As for the subdivisions among the races, American whites include persons with a great diversity of racial or ethnic backgrounds, and American blacks trace their ancestry back to a continent that is even more racially diverse than Europe. Since their arrival in North America there has been continual intermixing between the various races as well as between racial subdivisions.
As a census is taken most citizens self-identify their ethnicity. Some of the reported numbers under the Census Bureau classifications are obviously wrong. For example, in the 2010 Census almost 39 million United States citizens identified themselves as African American, but less than 9 million Americans said they were of mixed racial parentage. These numbers are easily challenged. Most persons self-identified as African American have Caucasians in their ancestry. One study reports that, on average, blacks have inherited 20% of their genome from European ancestors; and, under Merriam Webster’s second definition of race (physical characteristics), a significant number of African-Americans may be said to be more white than black. Note, however, that persons known to have even one African American among their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents, and all other ancestors are Caucasian, is likely to be identified as African American, and the black community accepts them as such regardless of their complexion. American whites have not been so accepting of persons of mixed ancestry. Indeed, under the infamous “one-drop rule” that prevailed in during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, any person with even one ancestor of sub-Saharan African ancestry was considered to be black.
What idiocy! The men who conjured up this hateful and insane rule were the grandsons and great-grandsons and great-great-grandsons of the very men who had fathered the children of Africans — mulattos, quadroons, and octoroons – children who were their siblings and cousins,
The following excerpts are taken from a book titled Who is Black, One Nation’s Definition written by F. James Davis, retired professor of sociology at Illinois State University:
Professor Davis discussed the uniqueness of the “one drop rule” as it applies to American blacks.
“Not only does the one-drop rule apply to no other group than American blacks, but apparently the rule is unique in that it is found only in the United States and not in any other nation in the world.”
The subject of miscegenation or racial mixing was also subjected to the professor’s perceptive comments. A certain degree of black-white mixing has occurred since the early days of American slavery. Slave masters and their sons and hirelings sometimes took advantage of their positions of power, and there is ample evidence of that in American black population today. Miscegenation through marriage between black and white, however, was illegal, and anti-miscegenation laws remained in effect in parts of the United States until 1967
“For the physically visible groups other than blacks, miscegenation promotes assimilation, despite barriers of prejudice and discrimination during two or more generations of racial mixing. . . For all persons of any known black lineage, however, . . . (b)arriers to full opportunity and participation for blacks are still formidable, and a fractionally black person cannot escape these obstacles without passing as white and cutting off all ties to the black family and community. The pain of this separation, and condemnation by the black family and community, are major reasons why many or most of those who could pass as white choose not to. Loss of security within the minority community, and fear and distrust of the white world are also factors.”
In summing up, Dr. Davis noted:
“It should now be apparent that the definition of a black person as one with any trace at all of black African ancestry is inextricably woven into the history of the United States. It incorporates beliefs once used to justify slavery and later used to buttress the castelike Jim Crow system of segregation. Developed in the South, the definition of “Negro” (now black) spread and became the nation’s social and legal definition. Because blacks are defined according to the one-drop rule, they are a socially constructed category in which there is wide variation in racial traits and therefore not a race group in the scientific sense. However, because that category has a definite status position in the society it has become a self-conscious social group with an ethnic identity.”
Slavery was a terrible experience for African Americans, and no one should minimize the deleterious effects of this experience on their psyche. Noting the history of ancient and medieval Europe, the Near East, and North Africa, most whites also had ancestors who were slaves, but these memories are buried in time, whereas the African American slavery experience is relatively recent and raw. Ripped from their ancestral homelands, subjected to cruel and inhumane conditions, often treated as some inferior or subhuman species, prey to sometimes sadistic slave owners, and subject to being separated from family and placed on the auction block, it is no wonder that anti-white anger still burns deep within the hearts of some blacks.
On the other side of the ledger, the vast majority of white Americans are not descendants of African American slave owners. At the height of slavery only about one in every four southern families owned a slave or slaves, and northern states eliminated slavery either before or during their early years in the union. Consider also that many thousands of whites died in the struggle that set blacks free, and millions of our fellow citizens are descendants of whites who came to America after the Civil War and had no connection with the slave problem. Even white descendants of slave owners do not see themselves as responsible for the acts of their forefathers. In their view, slavery was a product of its time, so their ancestors should not be judged by today’s standards.
In the past century, amazing progress has been made towards racial equality in the United States. But there remain many problems. The arrogant and condescending attitude of many Caucasians toward African Americans, due in large measure to two and a half centuries of African American servitude followed by years of second class treatment, continued long after the Civil War and the elimination of slavery, and this attitude on the part of some whites still exists today. The core of virulent haters, including members of the KKK and the American Nazi Party and their sympathizers, becomes smaller in numbers and less relevant every year. But racial prejudice and discrimination persists, and with that history and these attitudes, it is understandable that the response of many blacks is resentment or even hatred of whites. Even persons of goodwill find it very difficult to break through these barriers of dislike and distrust.
After the Civil War millions of African Americans left their homes in the rural American south and migrated to urban centers, first in the north and later in the west and south. Unfortunately, most of them ended up in black ghettos where they faced discrimination, chronic underemployment and unemployment, criminal exploitation by drug dealers and others, frequent mistreatment by the white power structure (including the police), and, probably most devastating, a breakdown of the black family. This last effect is attributable in part to the miserable failure of Federal programs that were designed to alleviate poverty but often caused even more problems. For example, some Federal assistance plans were constituted in such a way that splintered poor families (especially single mothers with multiple children) were more likely to get government assistance than relatively stable families with equal needs. This contributed to the creation of more fractured families and single mothers. Well-meaning but destructive government programs became self-perpetuating, and they often resulted in a loss of self-reliance and fostered a sense of entitlement. The war on drugs also had a destructive impact on urban African Americans in that a disproportionate number of young black males were incarcerated and hardened by a brutal prison system. Most blacks are convinced that white narcotic criminals receive far less severe sentences that blacks who are guilty of similar crimes, and statistics appear to support that belief.
In lashing out against those whom they perceive to be their oppressors, blacks often have great difficulty distinguishing between friend and foe. They are particularly susceptible to the influence of demagogues who exploit racial animosity for their own selfish mercenary or political ends. These provocateurs contribute to the racial divide and do nothing to solve the underlying problems.
White provocateurs have also been guilty of fanning the flames of racial discord. They use fear of African Americans to motivate and manipulate their supporters and attempt to keep blacks in a position of subservience. In recent years, however, the almost universal condemnation of these white race-baiters has decreased their numbers and diminished their influence on the American scene. Indeed, the pendulum has swung so far as to make even legitimate criticism of African American politicians or an honest discussion of racial issues by non-blacks subject to cries of racism.
Because of their history, some African Americans have adopted an “us versus them” attitude toward non-blacks. This attitude was clearly demonstrated in the O. J. Simpson trial when African American jurors chose to believe questionable charges of police racism and malfeasance as opposed to overwhelming evidence of a black man’s guilt. More recently it was demonstrated in Ferguson, Missouri, when so many blacks chose to believe a lie (Hands up. Don’t shoot!) in the face of incontrovertible evidence that a white police officer’s actions in that instance were probably justified. Conscious of our racial history and prevailing social attitudes, and experiencing a certain degree of white guilt, many whites tend to maintain a public silence in the face of such overt black racism. Nevertheless, it troubles them and contributes to the underlying social tensions.
There are other evidences of extremist attitudes by some African Americans toward whites and white culture. One of the most troubling manifestations of this attitude are the vituperative assaults on prominent black conservatives. Since these prominent African Americans do not march lock-step with populist black leaders or always support traditional black causes, they are considered by many blacks to be virtual traitors to their cause. Often they are disparagingly referred to as “Uncle Toms”. Others call them “Oreos” – black on the outside and white on the inside. For some black extremists this anti-white bias even extends to criticism of fellow blacks who place what they consider undue emphasis on education (especially classical Western education) and other trappings of white culture. One especially egregious example of this mindset was evidenced a few years ago when an African American civil rights leader spoke out against the adoption of black children by white families (even when black families were not offering to adopt) for fear that it would separate these children from African American culture.
And what about the evidence of continuing white racism? Thousands of lynchings took place in the American south in the decades immediately following the Civil War, and the shameful Jim Crow laws continued to be enforced until after mid-20th Century. We also saw many examples of extreme racial hatred in the south during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and 70s. Beatings, burnings, and murders were perpetrated by white supremacists in their effort to keep blacks in a state of subjugation, and local police were often involved in these racist acts. When obviously guilty offenders were brought to trial they were often acquitted by sympathetic white jurors (thus setting an example for black jurors in the later trials like that of O.J. Simpson). While most southern whites took no part in the more egregious acts against blacks, few of them had the moral courage to speak out openly against the evils of these racist thugs, and a majority continued to support segregation. It was just the way things were. Their silence prolonged the horror. But publicity arising over particularly heinous acts of racial barbarism eventually tipped the balance of public opinion, even in the deep south. Also, the inspiring words and eventual martyrdom of the Reverend Martin Luther King touched the consciences and hearts of all persons of goodwill.
In the late 1950s the Federal government finally began to step in and put its considerable weight on the scales of justice, and over time the true racial haters became fewer in number and more and more isolated. Nevertheless, the accumulated evils of centuries cannot be erased overnight. African Americans continue to feel the weight of discrimination and prejudice and the unfairness of so called “white privilege,” or what one academic defined as the “obvious and less obvious . . . (and unearned) advantages that white people . . . have in our society.” White people may not recognize or accept the reality of “white privilege,” but, true or not, most blacks believe it to be so, and there is strong evidence to suggest that it is factual.
And what are some other factors that contribute our continuing racial divide?
First there is the cultural and ethnic divide. For years American blacks were hammered with images of white superiority. To a young African American in the early 20th century it may have seemed that he was drowning in a white sea. Superman was white. The stars of stage and screen were white. The heroes of our national history were white. Our President and other political leaders were white. Even Jesus was white. Jesus was not only white, but he was often pictured as if he were a north European child somehow born into a Semitic family. Blacks were excluded from major American sports while white athletes like Babe Ruth, Red Grange, and Jack Dempsey were idolized. With few exceptions, blacks were even barred from active combat service in the American military.
Blacks fought against their cultural immersion in various ways. First, they developed their own sub-culture with music, entertainers, athletic leagues, etc. that were distinctively black. Second, they devised various ways to develop racial pride. Out of this came the attempt to identify certain ancient civilizations (e.g., the Egyptian) as having been black civilizations. Also, the Black Muslims, Black Hebrews and other such organizations were in part an expression of black pride and a statement of separateness from the nominally Christian white majority.
Over the last half-century the situation has changed dramatically. Many blacks are now very prominent in mainstream music and in the motion picture industry. Black athletes dominate in college and professional basketball and football, and blacks are fully integrated in the federal government and military. We have even had a black President. Many elements of the old cultural/ethnic divide continue, but they are more subtle and appear to be slowly fading.
The economic disparity between the races remains a great divider. Even if there were no ethnic or cultural barriers between black and white, there would still be separation between the haves and have-nots, and proportionately there are many more African Americans among the have-nots. They are more likely to be unemployed or mired in menial, low paying jobs. The poor live among the poor, the middle class live among the middle class, and the rich live among the rich. Until the most recent decades, certain neighborhoods were off-limits to blacks no matter what their income. In large degree that is no longer true. Today the main barrier is financial, with many African Americans being trapped in an economic underclass that effectively confines them to a poor black ghetto.
And what about the educational divide? For years African Americans have been served by poor, underperforming schools. At first the problem was the separate (but not equal) schools in the American south. That situation was dealt with in part by forced integration, though the quality of public secondary education remained generally unsatisfactory, and public schools, especially those in urban areas, often became rife with problems brought on by other societal ills. Those whites who could afford to do so attempted to protect their children by means of private schools or home schooling, but that escape was not usually available to blacks. In large metropolitan areas the situation was especially bad, with highly successful public school programs becoming a rare exception. As a result, many African American youths continue to leave school with few marketable skills and a rudimentary education, putting them in an educational underclass that serves as another great divider.
Crime rates among blacks are much higher than that among whites. To illustrate, African Americans constitute about 13% of the United States population, but Department of Justice statistics show that African Americans accounted for more than half of murders committed in this nation between 1980 and 2008. Most of these murders were blacks killing blacks, and the numbers are truly alarming. Heather MacDonald, Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of several books on the black vs. police problem, reports that approximately 6,000 blacks are murdered every year, a number greater than white and Hispanic homicides combined. A black American is about eight times more likely to be murdered than a white.
Reflecting the same sort of disparity, African Americans account for approximately 40% of prison inmates in the United States, and blacks are incarcerated at the rate of 2,306 per 100,000 as compared to whites at 450 and Hispanics at 831. Poverty, poor education, and employment problems are not the only factors that contribute to this difference. The aforementioned breakdown in African American families and the waning influence of the church also play their part in producing high black crime rates. Federal records from 2013 show that 72% of black children were born to unwed mothers as compared to 29% of whites. Quoting the late Charles Krauthammer, “A child born to a single mother faces not only poverty, but disadvantages in education, discipline, and socialization.” This is especially true when the unmarried parents do not cohabit, which is usually the case for poor blacks, and the fatherless, disadvantaged youth is often led to anti-social and criminal activities. As shown by the statistics, young African American males face these problems in highly disproportionate numbers.
Criminal conduct leads to conflict with police, and that conflict has become a boiling point in recent black-white relations. Unfortunately, truth is often the first casualty when clashes occur between blacks and law officers. Perhaps the greatest untruth is the contention by some blacks that racist police officers are the greatest threat facing young black men today. As Heather MacDonald points out, “the police could end all lethal uses of force tomorrow and it would have a trivial effect on the black death by homicide rate. The nation’s police killed 987 civilians in 2015 . . . Whites were 50% — or 493 of those victims, and blacks were 26 percent – or 258. Most of those victims of police shootings, white and black, were armed or otherwise threatening the officer with potentially lethal force.” Compare the number 258 to the reports of 6000 black murder victims every year.
Police are not usually hired for their meek manner and winsome ways. It takes a certain degree of bravado and toughness to enforce the law, especially in the crime-ridden districts of our major cities. Nevertheless, quoting Ms. MacDonald, “police have an indefeasible obligation to treat everyone with courtesy and respect and to act within the confines of the law. Too often, officers develop a hardened, obnoxious attitude. It is also true that being stopped when you are innocent of any wrongdoing is infuriating, humiliating, and sometimes terrifying.” In the inner city, police are placed in situations where most African Americans are already convinced that the criminal justice system is skewed against them, and “Given the history of racism in this country and the complicity of police in that history, police shootings of black men are understandably fraught.” At present, however, according to MacDonald, “officers are at a much greater risk from blacks than unarmed blacks are from police”, and statistics support that assertion.
As stated, many blacks believe themselves to be unfairly targeted by law enforcement officers and subject to excessive sentences by the courts. It is certainly true that over the course of many years black citizens have been subjected to police stops and searches far in excess of those normally experienced by whites, and juries have sometimes been stacked with “law and order” whites with little understanding of or sympathy for the black man’s plight. These years of real and perceived oppression have given many blacks an extremely negative view of the legal establishment, and they tend to avoid police officers rather than cooperate in fighting neighborhood crime. White children are usually taught to go the police when they need help, urban black children are often taught to distrust and evade them. That being said, most police officers attempt to enforce the law honestly and competently under very difficult circumstances. Few have had in-depth training in handling sensitive racial situations, however, and among any representative group of white police officers there are those who harbor racist attitudes. And there remain too many instances when truly evil and sadistic individuals are ensconced in a law enforcement organization, sometimes even as a police chief or sheriff. It takes only one or two firebrands or evildoers on either side to start a conflagration when the firewood of racial animosity has already been stacked high. When racial conflicts do occur, the police may be guilty of provocative action, or they may be innocent. Either way, they and their communities are forced to pay the price for decades of actual and perceived racial oppression.
In March 1992 Rodney King was stopped by police after a high-speed chase in and around Los Angeles. King was on parole from a robbery conviction and was afraid of being convicted for DUI and parole violations. After the stop there was a confrontation, and the police were videotaped using what appeared to be grossly excessive force in subduing King. The beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers and the subsequent failure of a suburban jury to convict those responsible led to one of the worst riots in United States history. The beating of King was truly reprehensible, but the riots were racial mayhem leading to murder and destruction on a truly grand scale. In 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, the pattern was repeated. In this case the white police officer who shot Michael Brown was apparently justified in his actions, but the black citizens of Ferguson refused to believe police and witness accounts, and riots erupted. Some civil rights leaders and African American politicians would not accept the truth even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the policeman’s innocence, proving that for them “the Cause” was more important than “the Truth.” In their view, four hundred years of racial oppression must be assuaged or even recompensed, and the slightest hint of over aggressive action by police officers is a valid reason to riot. This general situation repeats itself in many other places throughout America, and police officers and citizens are therefore sitting on a racial powder keg. Baltimore discovered this fact in 2015. Who knows if, when, and where these tensions will explode again?
Under these circumstances the police in many cities are backing off from proactive law enforcement. No officer wants to risk being labeled a racist and possibly losing his or her livelihood. As a result, arrests and summons are down, and crime rates are rising. Inner city blacks are the ones who will be hurt most by this trend.
Now let us consider the complicated question of correction or atonement in regards to our past racial sins. I once heard a famous evangelist use the expression “You can’t unscramble eggs.” He was speaking of broken marriages, but the same metaphor applies when attempting to deal with our troubled history of black–white relations. Wrongs were done and evils were perpetrated, but what do we do now to correct them? The best known and perhaps the most effective vehicle to achieve this corrective goal has been affirmative action legislation. Civil rights laws were passed in an attempt to level the playing field for all citizens in our society, regardless of race, religion, or gender. Complementing these laws, affirmative action “is the policy of favoring members of a disadvantaged group who currently suffer or historically have suffered from discrimination within a culture.” Using the principal of affirmative action, blacks have been given preferential treatment in college admissions, jobs, etc. Of course, this has led to other problems. Sometimes a superior student or more experienced job applicant is passed over in favor of an apparently less qualified black. On other occasions blacks have been placed in situations where, through lack of proper education or training, they were not prepared and liable to fail. There have been instances where the job or educational requirements for an entire organization have been lowered to accommodate more African American applicants. Nevertheless, most informed observers believe that, on the whole, the overall effect of affirmative action has been positive. It was always understood, however, that affirmative action was meant to be a temporary measure. As stated by the 1989 International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, “such anti-discrimination programs shall not entail the maintenance of unequal or separate rights for different racial groups after their objectives have been achieved.” Although there are problems with continuing these affirmative action programs, most knowledgeable authorities believe that many of the policies should be kept in place for some further time. The United States has some distance to go before it achieves racial parity.
But even as we continue some affirmative action initiatives, we must acknowledge that these programs have created intense hostility among many whites, and thus they have contributed to the racial divide. When a white student or job seeker is denied equal treatment on the basis of a need to correct past wrongs it is often difficult for the white to accept the rationale for that denial. “Two wrongs don’t make a right” is a frequent response, and that argument is certainly understandable. There are limits on can be done to reverse past injustices. Shall we give much of our land back to the Indians? Shall we compensate slave descendants for the labor of their slave ancestors? Shall we return California to the Mexicans? I say no to all these hypotheticals. Nevertheless, we must take reasonable steps to correct past wrongs even as we attempt to level the playing field for all our citizens. These steps should be taken cautiously and with great sensitivity.
Perhaps the most divisive affirmative action program ever undertaken was the practice of assigning and transporting students to different schools to reduce racial segregation. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The process of integrating public schools met severe opposition in the south where segregation laws had been enforced for more than half a century. Elsewhere in the nation, de facto school segregation was prevalent in many places because of racial residential patterns. In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts had the discretion to include busing as a desegregation tool to achieve racial balance. In the 1970s and 1980s, under federal court supervision, many school districts implemented mandatory busing plans within their district. These desegregation efforts aroused fierce resistance in many cities in both north and south. Parents are naturally protective of their children, and they were often angry about being forced to send their sons and daughters many miles to an unknown school when there was a school in their immediate neighborhood. Some of them had chosen their residences to be near that school. With the advent of busing, for many students there was a serious decline in the quality of education, disciplinary problems increased, and it was difficult for children and parents to involve themselves in extra-curricular school activities. In response, many white families moved to the suburbs, and many others turned to private or parochial schools or home schooling. Often black families were also unhappy with the program, but their escape options were more limited. The use of school busing to achieve desegregation gradually declined, and by the 1990s few school districts still used this tactic. Nevertheless, the unfortunate residue of the mandatory busing program is a deep resentment among many whites that serves as another racial divider.
This brings us to a discussion of the part played by courts in the civil rights struggle. It is certainly true that the law and the courts have played a key role in the fight against racial injustice. Often, however, the courts are not the best place to resolve some of the more complex issues. Solutions to many of the problems involved in tearing down old barriers and creating a more just and integrated society often require a patient, nuanced approach. Courts, on the other hand, often tend toward heavy handed, immediate, legally proper but sometimes impractical decisions based on one judge’s interpretation of the law. Sometimes the result is chaos. For example, after the historic Brown vs Board of Education ruling in 1954 most rational and reasonably intelligent political leaders in the American south saw the writing on the wall. A few citizens of goodwill worked behind the scenes to come up with ways to achieve school integration with the least possible disruption to society and the public order. When the matter hit the courts, however, the push was for immediate and decisive action. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” The approach may have been just and it was certainly effective, but it left a bitter residue. As a general rule, I believe it is a wiser course for a court to give general guidelines (what is the goal and what is reasonable and acceptable?) and leave practical details to a legislative body that better represents the will of the people.
What are possible solutions to the continuing problem of racism in America?
First, all people of goodwill must fight against racism in all its forms. We are all God’s children, and we are all Americans. We must try to understand one another’s point of view even as we often disagree on solutions to problems that confront us. We should speak with softer voices and, where there is misunderstanding, give each other the benefit of the doubt. Put the best possible interpretation of other peoples’ motives, and always search for a peaceful resolution of argument and conflict. All of us want the same basic things – a good job, a place to live, food on the table, safety for our family, and personal respect.
Because of our history, which includes 250 years of chattel slavery followed by even more decades of blatant discrimination against African Americans, America’s racial problems are unique. But because of our history we also have amazing opportunities for positive progress in race relations. These are opportunities that are not available to those who live in more racially homogenous lands.
America is truly a racial melting pot. Our identity as Americans is not based on our ancestry but on the fact that we are residents in the United States of America. Our parents or grandparents or more remote ancestors may have come here from Scotland or Greece or Honduras or from any other nation, but we are no longer Scots or Greeks or Latinos – we are Americans. We bring certain gifts to America based on our ethnic heritage, and in that way the whole becomes even greater than its constituent parts. E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one. We have become a nation of many ethnic strands, each strand contributing some unique element to our united strength as a people. Think of just a few of those individuals who have contributed so much to our country.
George Washington – (Revolutionary War leader and first President) of English descent.
I. du Pont – (founder of the great American chemical company) born in France.
Booker T. Washington – (educator and author) of African/European descent.
Knute Rockne – (legendary football coach) from Norway.
Irving Berlin – (prolific song writer – God Bless America, White Christmas) a Ukrainian Jew from Czarist Russia.
Charles Lindbergh – (famous aviator) of Swedish descent.
Bob Hope – (humorist and actor) of English/Welsh ancestry, born in England.
Douglas MacArthur – (famous American military leader) of Scottish and English descent.
Chester Nimitz – (outstanding naval commander of World War II) of German descent.
Will Rogers – (actor, humorist, and commentator) of European and American Indian (Cherokee) descent.
Richard Rodgers – (famed composer – Oklahoma, Sound of Music) of German Jewish descent.
Franklin D. Roosevelt – (wartime President) of Dutch and English descent.
Helen Keller – (inspirational deaf and blind author and lecturer) of Swiss and English descent.
John Wayne – (American film star) of Scottish, Irish, and English descent.
Martin Luther King, Jr. – (inspirational pastor and civil rights champion) of African/European descent.
Michael Jordan – (outstanding basketball player – representing all those superb black athletes who dominate collegiate and professional sports) of African/European descent.
The ethnic backgrounds of many of these people is actually more diverse than indicated.
It is difficult to visualize an America without the contributions of these gifted individuals, and they constitute only a tiny representative list of those people from every continent and ethnic background who have helped make this nation great. We should be proud to call ourselves Americans
I see a reflection of the melting pot in my own extended family, and this phenomenon has become even more pronounced in recent years. My family now includes persons of English, Scottish, German, French, Irish, Welsh, Dutch, Filipino, Vietnamese, Nicaraguan, Sri Lankan and Swiss ancestry. My family has become richer for this diversity, and I know that we will soon grow to include even more ethnicities. The question remains as to how we can use the melting pot model to help resolve our racial tensions?
As one way to do this, I suggest that we should eliminate the concept of hyphenated Americans and eliminate this sort of usage in our language. We should no longer refer to individuals as African-Americans or Italian-Americans or any other _____-Americans. We are all just Americans, and why should it matter where our ancestors came from or whether they were slaves or free men? As Helen Keller once wrote, “there is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.” It would also be helpful to drop the terms white and black in categorizing our fellow citizens. Certainly we can see that this usage divides us, and it obvious that these terms are becoming less and less descriptive of reality.
But is it realistic to believe that we can make that drastic a change in our language and our attitudes about race and ethnicity? The answer is yes. When I was very young the usual term for persons of African ancestry was negro. Then negro was dropped in favor of colored, and some years later colored was phased out for Afro-American. Afro-American was soon changed to African American or black, the terms now in use. This shows that these sorts of changes can be effected if the community wills it.
What would we lose by throwing away our ethnic and racial labels? We could still take pride in our family histories and celebrate our ethnic heritage, whether it be black or white or Asian or any other flavor. Our cultural affinities need not be affected. You could still attend a Greek festival, participate in Highland Games, or enjoy a day in Chinatown; but you would no longer be labeled as anything but American. When a crime is committed the perpetrator would not be identified as white or black but by some code (detailing skin color, eye color, hair color, height, weight, facial feature type, etc.) that would serve as a much more accurate physical descriptor than one’s supposed “race”.
And what would we gain? Perhaps most importantly, we would not be divided by labels. All of us would simply be Americans, members of the great melting pot, each contributing his or her own little bit to the grand mix. Racial mixing will continue, and physical distinctions between the various ethnic groups will slowly lessen. Gradually the old markers would fade into general disuse and, over time, perhaps forgotten. What a grand day that would be!
Eliminating labels will take time. Meanwhile there is much we can do to lessen racial tensions and make things better for blacks. The first thing requiring attention is police-community relations, an area of extreme volatility and potential peril. Provocateurs should be identified and kept out of the mix. Leaders in the African American community and the police must then work together to create a bond of trust. Blacks need to sit on police review boards. Police should be invited to black civic meetings. Every effort must be made to understand each other. Police can inform blacks about their methods and the particular difficulties they encounter in enforcing the law. Blacks can inform police about their own special situations and the problems they have in dealing with police. In the name of truth, black civil rights leaders must stop using spurious statistics to damn the police (after all, when the vast majority crimes in a certain area are being committed by blacks, it is not an indication of racism when more blacks than whites in that area are detained, arrested, and incarcerated). Assuming amicable intentions on each other’s part, the police and black community leaders should be able to improve communications and hammer out procedural changes that will reduce the likelihood of conflict. Basic rules in black–police informational exchanges should include an insistence on lowered voices, an avoidance of charges and counter charges, an assumption of amity and a mutual desire for progress, and a search for and acceptance of the facts — letting the chips fall where they may. Police officers should receive intensive training in how to handle sensitive racial situations, and young blacks should be taught how to properly interact with the police.
More vigorous steps should be taken to fully integrate urban police departments, and any sign of racism or brutality on the part of an officer must be dealt with immediately. Black civic leaders must take responsibility for encouraging their people to cooperate with law enforcement in reducing crime and making their neighborhoods safer places to live. With determination on each side, and with mutual respect, all this can be achieved.
Reforms to the legal and correctional systems must also be pursued. Too many young black men are being incarcerated, and once in prison they are often hardened by exposure to evil and twisted felons. There they are also prey to purveyors of hate and alien political philosophies. Thus the prison becomes a veritable academy for crime, riots, and revolution. The recidivism rate is atrocious. To change this, we should insist on alternative sentencing whenever feasible and effective. Also, extreme care must be exercised to segregate prisoners based on their age, gender, nature of their crime, physical strength, sexual orientation, and propensity for violence. To achieve this, our present places of incarceration may be effectually divided into separate areas of control or replaced by smaller, more numerous, specialized facilities. Custodial care of prison inmates should be considered a high calling. Those who do this work should be well trained and equitably compensated. There would be significant costs associated with such changes, but the benefits could be enormous.
Education is another area requiring immediate attention. Many good people are already addressing the problem, but much remains to be done. Vocational training and trade schools should be promoted and made much more available, and tradesmen and skilled workers should be afforded the respect they deserve. Significant numbers of white and black young people neither want nor are suited for a traditional college education. Also, in my opinion, we should adopt school voucher systems. Private and parochial schools would thrive under a voucher system, and all parents, black and white, would have better choices for their children’s education. The resulting educational competition should improve overall school quality and thereby produce graduates much better prepared for today’s job environment.
Family breakups and high out-of-wedlock birth rates in the black community are especially vexing problems to address. These issues would be best approached by black pastors, teachers, and civic leaders. African American icons in the entertainment and sports industry could also play an important and constructive role. Replace “gangsta rap” with positive images for black youth, and promote good African American role models. At the same time, improvements in the quality of education and the availability of decent employment opportunities would probably have an immediate uplifting effect on the average black family.
Christian churches can and should play an incredibly important role in promoting racial harmony in our land. Not so many years ago Martin Luther King famously said, “The most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” That cannot be! Christian faith is still vitally important to large numbers of whites and blacks, and churches must take the lead in reaching out to their brothers and sisters across the racial divide. They should promote integrated worship services and special events. Black and white churches could form some sort of fellowship bonds that would include pastoral exchanges, shared community outreach programs, etc. Paraphrasing the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “There is neither black nor white, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
From my own experience, I can affirm the fact that most whites do not hate blacks. For myself, I react to others based on their words and actions, not their skin color. Over the course of many years I have known a few haters, but their numbers are relatively few. White persons of goodwill, and that includes most of us, wish African Americans well. It is hard for us to place ourselves in black people’s skins, but we do understand many of the reasons for anger and frustration in the black community. At the same time, we are often at a loss as to what we can do personally to change things for the better. As a result, there is anxiety, confusion, and sometimes fear.
Blacks are understandably impatient with the way things are. They want change now. They respond furiously to any sign of disrespect. Sometimes, in lashing out in blind anger, innocent people are hurt, and the black cause suffers. I remember the African American and Asian shop owners in Los Angeles who were burned out during the Rodney King riots. I recall the Duke lacrosse players whose lives were turned upside down when a black woman falsely accused them of rape. I think of the poor people of Baltimore who were the real victims when an African American died in police custody, and black mobs burned their own neighborhoods down.
We need another Martin Luther King. We need strong black leaders to step forward and give wise direction in the continuing fight for justice and equality for their people. And we need white leaders with wisdom and compassion to reach out to the black community. We need men and women of both races with the strength and moral clout to address both blacks and whites and receive a respectful hearing. All of us must show proper courtesy to one another, and we must try to understand each other. We should avoid overreacting to every stupid barb and sometimes unintentional ethnic slur, and we should not assume that every cry of “Racism!” is true.
Each of us is an imperfect human being. In the words of the Bible, we are all sinners. We are sometimes thoughtless and inconsiderate and rude in our interactions with others, black or white. Recognizing this fact, we should be not too quick to take offense. On the other hand, there are whites who spew hatred and perform horrible racist acts, and they must be censured and brought to justice; and there are blacks who will make false accusations against whites or against the police, and they should be condemned. All of us must do our very best to keep things in perspective and work toward a better future in black–white relations.
We are all Americans. We are all God’s children. Let us love one another as brothers and sisters.