Monday, December 26, 2016

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Race? Part Two.

The Various Forms of Racism.

"Well, there is no magic solution [to the problem of racism]. I would only hope that where there is a will there is a way. I think probably that Americans will have to realize how stupid this attitude is and how harmful it is, also, to the standing of the United States." Albert Einstein [1].

In the first post in this series, I went over the definitions of race, racism and racist. I pointed out that race has several meanings, including nationality, shared culture and ethnicity.

I proposed that as a first step we should direct our attention away from the question of whether someone is a racist and look at whether someone commits racist acts. Ultimately, the latter is the evidence of the former and with a collection of racist acts, a determination can be made.

So what are racist acts? Well, they come in several varieties, flagrant, subtle and in-between. Interestingly, the subtle acts, of which there are many, can have a greater cumulative damage.

I'd like to propose a taxonomy of applied racism. First a list of what's coming and then the discourse.

Einstein (second from left) served with Paul Robeson (right) on a committee to stop lynchings.

Various Forms of Racism, Part One, an outline.

  1. Blatant racism.
  2. Prejudging Leading to Discrimination.
  3. Racism as Fear.
  4. Fear of the Other.

Several housekeeping questions, including:

Isn't everybody somewhat racist? Isn't it hardwired into our genes?
Aren't you ignoring the fact that there are some out there that want to harm me? Are you saying that I shouldn't be afraid of them?

       5. Anecdotal racism.

#1. Blatant Racism.

Occurrences that few would deny as racism. Can be violent and criminal, can be the cruelty of words or decisions.

Sometimes it seems like this is the only kind that Hollywood knows. In fiction this is presented as slobbering bigots versus angelic victims, as though you had to slobbering versus angelic for this to have meaning. In the news this is presented as, "Oh, how awful." I have frustration with the discussion about this, because too often this gets all of the focus.

Okay, I need to lower my hackles. This occurs, historically and currently. It is the most obscene form of racism.

I don't feel the need to discuss it as it is well-discussed already. Let's go on to other types of racism which are less flagrant but more prevalent.

Medgar Evers, in life.

#2. Prejudice Leading to Discrimination.

In the mid-1980s, Tony Kornheiser, then a columnist for the Washington Post Magazine, wrote an essay about a conversation he'd had with the owner of a jewelry shop in an upscale section of Connecticut Avenue. The shop owner said he refused to "buzz in" young black males, denying them entrance to his establishment. Kornheiser agreed with the owner's judgment.

In this brief scenario, Kornheiser presented a succinct example of prejudice and racism and gave it his blessing. Prejudice because the owner saw people whom he prejudged. Racism, because he provided only three qualifiers to those he would not allow in: young, male and black. Young black male equaled threatening. If other young males were equally threatening, he could easily have stated that.

Making a judgment based on race without other qualifying factors is racism (and sometimes those qualifying factors are added as decoration).

The Sunday following this column I attended church at St. Augustine's on 15th Street, a church whose congregation was, at that time, at least 95% black. The sermon was emotional and blistering. "Are they telling me that my son cannot shop for jewelry because of this man's fears?"

I am not saying Kornheiser is a racist. People are tens of thousands of complex things. I am saying that in this instance he supported racism.

#3. Racism as Fear.

Mrs. O'Connell, one of my eleventh grade teachers, taught me that, in the same way that there are primary colors which mix together to produce secondary colors (blue plus red equals purple), there are primary emotions that mix together to make secondary emotions. Fear and anger are among the primary emotions. Hate arises from fear. Although simplistic, this is the basic formula: "They threaten me (fear). They have no right to threaten me (anger). They should be afraid of me (hate)."

Prejudice and bigotry against groups begins with fear. Xeno means foreigner. Phobia means fear. The word xenophobia is fear - but not just fear. It is "fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign." [Merriam-Webster]

Another long-winded story. I became eligible to vote about two weeks before the 1976 election. I went to the local Democratic and Republican campaign headquarters to get posters of their candidates (national and local) for a presentation at my church. When I gathered these, I left out the fact that the purpose of these posters was a Halloween "horror gallery." Jimmy Carter's poster became Jimmy "Jaws" Carter, he smiled so hard he ate his own head. I added a zig-zagging scar to Gerald Ford's head and bolts to his neck and he became "Fordenstein," the first monster to die an accidental death. Then I dressed up as the halfback of Notre Dame and, with flashlight in hand, led visitors on a tour of the gallery of monsters.

One of the viewers got very nervous and upset. The priest suggested maybe I tone it down. I thought, "Oh, come on, but this is so phony, so ridiculous." Upon reflection, I saw that the priest was right, and this incident was my first realization that some people are easily frightened.

Let me go from here to a more familiar situation. In the 1980s, back when city crime was nearing its peak, I lived in what my landlord called "an aggressively urban neighborhood" in Washington, DC. Drugs were regularly sold in the open along the block. While at a party in a different, more upscale part of town, I listened to someone (white, suburban) comment on the time he got lost and drove into the wrong part of DC and how lucky he was to survive [2]. I realized it was my neighborhood that he spoke about (and the street was single block long between two major thoroughfares, so he could hardly have been lost for more than a few seconds.) This person would probably scoff at the person who was frightened by the presidential monster posters, but his fears were also extremely exaggerated.

The block where I lived had way too high of a crime rate. Still, if you lived there a whole year, you would probably not be a victim of anything [3]. (I lived there a year without being a victim. I'm not sure I would place a similar bet on five years.)  The odds of something happening to someone driving by for a brief time on a single night, was virtually nothing. And yet this, probably otherwise intelligent, person saw it as fear. Was the fear racist? I cannot say with certainty, although he did bring up another story about one time when he had to take the bus up 14th Street in Washington and he was the only white person on board. [4]

Donald Trump, Junior, tweeted a message to express his objections to allowing in Syrian refugees into the United States. "If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That's our Syrian refugee problem."

So, out of about 100 Skittles in the bowl, three would kill you. Not just three would harm someone, somewhere. This was old school fear mongering: they are going to kill you. The fear of presidential monster posters was more rational.

Several media outlets tried to put the absurdity of these numbers in perspective, from the probability that a Syrian refugee will plan a terrorist attack 3/1000ths of a percent to the number of Skittles the bowl would need to be correct for a terrorist attack (10 billion) which killed you.

This is no joke. This message kills. This wildly and cowardly irrational fear will set public policy and people will die (the men, women and children refugees). They have something real to fear.

I believe we all have a set-point to our fears. Some of us are afraid of comically drawn presidential posters and some are afraid of Skittles. Recognizing this and doing our best to adjust to reality, is one of the best defenses against racism.

#4. Fear of the Other.

"I'm not a racist. I have friends who are [fill in the blank]." The distinction of having friends who belong to a particular group that experiences racism is not a defense that someone is not racist: it is a feature of a certain kind of racism.

For some, blacks are not bad. "I have a good friend at work who's black. He's a regular guy. The problem are those blacks who live in certain neighborhoods (presumably working somewhere else) and engage in crime, ..."

This attitude is often directed between cultural divides. A rural person may have minorities for friends, but still say, "look at the cities, big city corruption, crime, things are horrible" and associate those fears with urban blacks. On the flip side of the coin, a black person in the city may have whites for friends but say, look at the rural areas: small town justice, a history of the KKK–they fear us and hate us. And you can select news items to prove both these propositions. And that crazy guy in the office named Joe? He's Crazy Joe, just get used to him. Knowing people is a cure for racism. We can't know everyone, so we need to assume the ones we don't know are similar to the ones we know.

I grew up without knowingly encountering gay people and at a time when they almost never appeared in national media (which was ruled by three broadcast television networks.) I had a fear of gay people. They were the people over there. This changed (slowly) as I met gay people who were (...drum roll...) people. As I met more I found that I could not distinguish between good people and bad people based on sexual orientation. The gays I got to know were not always saints, but then neither were the heterosexuals.

To some extent, we are Kevin McAllister in Home Alone afraid of the boogie man, creepy Mr. Marley next door.

Intermission (Dealing with several related matters):

Some people might ask: Aren't we all to some degree racist? Isn't a fear of others hard-wired into our genes?

I'm not a big fan of the "blame it on evolution," argument as an excuse. Let's say it is natural that we have a fear of the dark. Before light was readily available, caveman did have to be concerned that a lion could sneak up on him at night. The hunter-gatherer had to plan the day to get back to safety before nightfall. But, you know what? We built the tools to be safer in the dark and overcome fears. To continue to have an irrational fear of the dark or other people is: irrational. It harms us, it harms others.

Another form of this question, might be phrased as: by writing this are you claiming you are not racist (or never were)?

I am writing this in part to explore the instances of racism in myself, why they occur and how I can do better.

Another question. Aren't you ignoring the fact that there are some out there that want to harm me? Are you saying that I shouldn't be afraid of them?

First of all, this is the internet and I don't know who you are. So, do I know whether there are people out there who want to harm you? Yes, I do know and yes, some do want to hurt you. I can say that with confidence because in this world there is a lot of irrational hatred out there, enough to go around for everyone. For many people that threat is very small in the realm of one in millions. Two of the main goals of these posts are to place the threat in perspective and to look at our end of the equation. Even in the face of threat, racism and exaggeration, is counterproductive.

#5. Racism by Anecdote.

This post is running long, so I'm going to divide up the topics and finish this section as part one.

One of the most common forms of racism is racism by anecdote. Why this exists, well, I've never been able to wrap my head around the reason. Let me explain what I mean.

I owned a car which was stolen twice. The first time it was stolen it was found by the police, out of gas and abandoned on the main thoroughfare in a predominantly black neighborhood (Anacostia, Washington, DC). Considering the neighborhood and the car's quick desertion, I would guess that the most likely scenario is that it was stolen by a black person or persons who took it on a joy ride.

The second time the car was stolen, the thief had a minor accident, and abandoned the car before the police could be called in. The thief was seen while fleeing: he was white.

Other than having a nebulous anger directed at the unknown thieves in the first incident, why should I be angry at any black person who didn't steal my car? Why should I be angry at whites in general for the second time my car was stolen?  These were single incidents, and, in telling, anecdotes.

In making the announcement for his bid for the United States presidency, Donald Trump stated, "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." There is some additional context which is included below [5].

Three weeks later, Trump latched on to the murder of Kathryn Steinle to support his proposal to build a wall.

Twitter message (one of several):
.@marcorubio what do you say to the family of Kathryn Steinle in CA who was viciously killed b/c we can't secure our border? Stand up for US.

Trump cites Steinle's death to prove he was right. [source]

Kathryn Steinle was shot and killed by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez on July 3rd, 2015 in San Francisco. He was illegally in the United States and had been deported five times, only to return. He has claimed the shooting was an accident. The bullet which hit her ricocheted off the pavement and traveled about 90 feet before striking her in the aorta. His trial is set to begin in 2017.

With 15,809 homicides in the United States (2015), it would be possible, even simple, for Trump to latch on to a murder by any group against any group. Anecdotes are there for the choosing. If you choose an anecdote that demonstrates a prejudice, that is a form of racism.

But what about statistics? Statistics exist that break down crime according to race. That will be a topic for the next post.

Coming Up: Various Forms of Racism, Part Two.
  • Statistics and racism.
  •   False statistics.
  •   Selective statistics.
  •   Exaggerating the meaning of statistics.
  • Sins of omission.
  • Reverse discrimination.

[1] Albert Einstein, interviewed by Peter A. Buckey as presented in Einstein on Race and Racism.
[2] I included the basics of this story in my novel, "Never Kill A Friend."
[3] If you were part of the D-Day Invasion, you'd stand a one-in-sixty chance of dying that day. This place was no Omaha Beach.
[4]  In fairness, at the time, I couldn't figure out what the man with the bus anecdote meant by his of being the only white person aboard the bus. Was he saying, I'm cool, it's not as though being surrounded by black people meant danger? Or did he mean, again, how on earth did I survive?
 [5] From Trump's presidential announcement, June 16, 2015.
"When do we beat Mexico at the border? They're laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they're killing us economically.
The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems.
Thank you. It's true, and these are the best and the finest.
When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

Also, follow-up comments:
"I can never apologize for the truth. I don't mind apologizing for things. But I can't apologize for the truth. I said tremendous crime is coming across. Everybody knows that's true. And it's happening all the time. So, why, when I mention, all of a sudden I'm a racist. I'm not a racist. I don't have a racist bone in my body."

–Trump, interview on Fox News' "Media Buzz," July 5, 2015

"What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc."

As presented in The Washington Post, July 8, 2015.
Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 


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