Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Racism or is it something else?

I might be getting myself into a bit of trouble here but I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately. Because of who I am I have to wonder if I have any right to even comment. If you listen to many of those in the know, I haven't any idea what I am talking about when discussing racism. Whether that is true or not, I wanted to share my thoughts.

By luck or happenstance, Ms. Lillywhite finds herself stranded in an industrial part of town late in the evening. Her car will not start. Her cell phone has zero bars - she should have chosen AT&T or Verizon if you believe their advertisements. Her choices are to sit there and wait without knowing if anyone would be by or get out of the car and walk the few blocks to the nearest public phone - it's in a bar named Louie's. Ms. Lillywhite thought the name curious as she drove past it earlier that day, which is why she even remembered seeing it.

A block and a half from the bar, a dark shape steps out from between two buildings. Ms. Lillywhite feels the bile of fear in her throat. She steels herself and continues toward Louie's. She walks past the man. Ten paces closer to the safety of a lighted public place, she realizes the man is walking in the same direction as she is. Could he be following her or is this coincidental? The fear bubbling up in her is beginning to boil over. Ms. Lillywhite could not make out any features as she passed the man. She quickened her pace. That last block to the bar seemed to stretch on forever.

As she entered Louie's, she realized the man was following her into the bar. Inside, the lighting was better than the night outside but it was still pretty dark, dark enough to obscure Ms. Lillywhite view of most of the occupants. Her anticipation of feeling safer inside was swept away. She made her way to the bar and inquired about the phone. Ms. Lillywhite was "rescued" only 20 minutes later, when her husband walked into Louie's. While she waited, she recognized the patronage was a general mix of working class Americans. The man that followed her in was a young black man.

Angel Torres is struck down by a hit-and-run driver and lays in the street bleeding while onlookers do nothing. Well, almost nothing. Four 911 calls, imploring quick response, were made.

We like to consider ourselves more like the good Samaritan and less like the priest or Levite. This event demonstrates how truly correct the parable is. Most people seemed to find it less than compelling to help this man.

I considered this experience and thought of putting a twist into play - what if. What would the news story be if the man were black and the onlookers white - the man white and the onlookers black? What happened was terrible, truly tragic.

Back to Ms. Lillywhite. Were her fears based in racism?

James grew up in a desert community in Southern California. His best friend was the only son of migrant farm workers who found a way to gain a small grasp on the American dream. Both James and his friend were able to attend California State University San Bernardino as well. After graduation, James accepted a position with a firm in Chicago.

James' new job required he visit with families in government subsidized housing near Midway Airport. James was very uncomfortable with this assignment. The culture, the dress and the mannerisms of the people he met with were very different from what he had experienced back home.

Was James' reaction based in racism?

I detest hearing a story on the news or reading about something in the news paper when the editors decide a person's race might be pertinent to what might have made the story news worthy. This is not to say that there is never a time when race is not irrelevant. However, in most cases a man or woman, boy or girl did something or had something happen to them. Their race had nothing to do with it. Religion is handled in much the same way. There are a few religions who will be noted if the main subject of the news follows that belief. Why is it relevant?

I believe that most of the time when people are uncomfortable around others, there is not a racist slant. People in general do not care one wit about other people's genealogy - well, beyond general curiosity. I believe that most people today see everyone else around them as being the same in most respects. I also believe that we tend to migrate to others with similar backgrounds. We like to have something in common with those with whom we interact. Culture, religion, hobbies, etc. If there is common ground on which we can build a relationship, the rest is mearly formalities. Race does not play a significant role in making these relationships happen. As all generalities go, there are exceptions but in most cases I believe this is true 99.99% of the time.

Neither James nor Ms. Lillywhite are racist. Ms. Lillywhite was in a situation that mirrored everything she had been warned to avoid throughout her whole life. A dark ally and unknown identities will play on each other enough to make just about anyone uncomfortable. James was in a culture that was totally different from anything he had experienced. Once he learned more about that culture and came to understand it, his fears would be eased. If Angel Torres' story were slightly different, it would be just as tragic and the people not helping would still be under general condemnation.

I guess what my ruminations have established, at least for me, is this. In general, actions that might be perceived as racist in nature could very well have grounds in other less benign emotions. I'm not talking about the blatant racism spouted by the prognostic minority but the rest of us. Many of the problems attributed to racism, I believe would still exist in a monoethnic society, they would just have different names for these problems.

This leaves me with a single question. If it isn't racism, then how do we overcome the problem?
Post a Comment