Friday, October 4, 2013

Bringing the Color Line into Focus for White America

Why are people of color always talking about racial problems, why keep bringing up the past?

By: Joel Gardner, Executive Director - Whitewashed USA

CNN discussed playing the race card against a witness
This is how it usually happens; there is a horrific event that catches the nation’s attention for a few short moments of time. It might be the OJ Simpson trial, the beating of Rodney King, or the killing of Trayvon Martin. As the scenes play out repeatedly on our televisions and smart phones, there is inevitably conversations that happen in split screen view with a civil rights proponent on one side saying that racial bias and hate crimes need to be stopped, and someone on the other side rolling their eyes and asking why the race card is always played, and why we are wasting our time discussing race relations when such an awful event has happened.

Why does race seem to always get pulled into the conversation by some, and why is it always dismissed by others? 

In an attempt to answer this question we need to look at both sides of this conversation and then pull back the curtain and see the color line that divides them.

Although each of the events listed above had a drastic impact on those involved, for our purpose here I want to draw your focus away from the events and on to the conversations that inevitably begin to circulate. These conversations typically start when the news and other media sources look for someone to comment on what happened, if the event can be perceived as race related in any way, the media will reach out to people involved in the civil liberties movement to get a comment. At this point there will be a very simple sound bite about how this travesty needs to be investigated further. Then a short time later a strong response comes loudly and clearly in defense, along with the accusation and condemning of racial motives.

To understand what is happening here we need to look behind the scenes. After that first soft comment to the media, there is a vetting process performed on the civil liberties side to see if the victim of the crime is a good candidate for defense, by checking for obvious gotchas in their past like domestic violence or drug related crimes. It is only natural that this should happen, because those fighting for racial equality are placing not only their own reputations but the validity of the civil liberties movement on the altar of public opinion in each of these cases. You can imagine the embarrassment that could and does happen when an individual who has been placed on a pedestal as the victim of injustice turns out to have a pattern of self-destructive choices behind them. If the victim is potentially a good example and the initial evidence looks like race could have been a factor, then the logical move is to use the opportunity to draw public attention to the very real and larger problem of racial bias in this country.

Which brings us to the eye rolling and accusations of “playing the race card” that come from the conservative spokesperson on the other side of that split screen. For many white Americans, the discussion of race is strictly historic, bad things like slavery happened long before we were born and even the civil rights movement is something many of us only know from TV documentaries and grade school discussions. Now, except for the occasional racially tainted joke at work there is very little evidence seen in our world of current day racial problems. This is not a case of apathy; it is a case of invisibility. Because racial discussions are so uncomfortable for obvious reasons, white America helped push for new laws in the 1960’s and then wanted to put it to rest, and stop talking about the issue altogether. When the footage of marches and riots stopped appearing on the news every night, we stopped paying attention, and eventually put the whole topic in the bucket of “not politically correct” to talk about. Because of this and other reasons beyond the scope of this article, racial bias and civil liberties have become an invisible problem that remains hidden away. This is why, some white Americans, feel that the public accusations of racism that pop up in so many news stories seem inflammatory and overstated for the individual situation.

In my article on How to Stop Racial Bias, I describe why changing the law is a good start, but that it does very little to change underlying social problem. In this case those underlying problems have all been alive and well for people of color, from the 1960s to today, and the issues that they face today are compounded by the fact that it’s not socially acceptable to bring them up. This has caused a larger and larger gap between the experiences of the white community and communities of color in this country. This gap is called the color line, it is a radical difference in experience, perspective, and attitude that divides us.

So, why are people of color always bringing up the past? Because for them it is happening right now, it is a current problem that we as white Americans can only see clearly in history books. This makes discussing that history one path that might help us set aside our fear of blame and let these hard conversations happen openly. A little light and clarity always go a long way towards empathy and ultimately change.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments welcome! Be respectful, your viewpoint is welcome, attacking someone else is not.