I doubt I’ll ‘wow’ anyone with my observations about the problems of ‘Other’ in America. It’s all been said in one way or another. But I think it’s worth pointing out that we still don’t get it.
The recent take-down of the Confederate flag is a good example.
In this eight-second attention span world, it’s not difficult to understand why so many people find justification for their prejudices. Unless we know history and have learned to reason, we have little chance to appreciate other people’s reality. Instead we see anything not of our ‘in group’ with fear and anger—an eight-second take.
Racism, for example. The longer version goes like this. Ripped from their native lands and cultures, indigenous African people sold into slavery had no previous experience in Western norms. And aside from the lash of a whip, precious little of those norms were imbued when they arrived on our shores. In the fields of the American South, they weren’t here to learn our ways but to labor as a slightly more capable worker than a mule. For two hundred years, they weren’t educated or otherwise enabled to gain knowledge of Western customs.
Then one hundred fifty years ago, they were turned loose. This would have been a good time to wrap these folks in our arms and invest significant resources in education, social services, and other methods of making them part of our world. But few considered them ‘equal’ whether or not they believed slavery to be wrong.
And how could we consider them equal?
They weren’t like us. They didn’t talk like us, didn’t look like us, and didn’t act like us. They were ignorant, uneducated, unsophisticated. They suffered all the disabilities of their isolated and abused status: a poor grip on our language, cobbled together speech patterns, behaviors and beliefs that reflected their African roots.
These characteristics justified a continuing discrimination that hasn’t yet ended. Ample examples exist today of blacks who exhibit tribal behavior in angry demonstrations or celebrations, whose speech holds little in common with ‘white’ speech, whose appearances are different from the white norm. Unequal and inadequate education, poll taxes, economic exploitation, Jim Crow, and direct attacks on any and all aspects of Black community perpetuate this vicious cycle.
Yes, there were and are exceptions. Blacks who matriculated through the institutions of white culture, who intermingled and socialized with whites, became—surprise—just as educated, intelligent, and sophisticated as many whites!
Substitute ‘Mexican’ or ‘Native American’ or ‘Italian’ for the word ‘Black’ and the truth of our cultural tendency to operate from a hard-wired position of prejudice speaks for itself. But unlike other immigrants to American shores, Blacks suffer an additional stigma. Because we knew Blacks had been enslaved, beaten and abused, their families broken apart, and their traditions denigrated, it didn’t take a lot of mental arithmetic for us to believe that freed Blacks would have it in for us.
If you’d been treated that way, wouldn’t you be mad as hell?
So as soon as Blacks could walk freely among us, fear took over. The Ku Klux Klan formed to save white women from black men, because just as surely as white slave owners had ‘improved’ the black race by rape and interbreeding, why wouldn’t we assume that black men would want to do the same? Blacks who talked back, organized with labor unions, had the nerve to walk about in white society were quietly lynched or burned out of their churches and homes. If not at the end of a whip as slave, at least the black could be kept in his ‘place’ through systematic terrorism.
In its most recent incarnation, the preferred instrument of our racial prejudice has been drug laws. Laws against opium (1914, 1935) had to do with controlling increasingly unpopular Chinese immigrants. (The railroads were built and the mines had become mechanized. No more Chinese needed.) Laws against marijuana (1937) had to do with controlling Blacks and Mexicans. (During the Great Depression, these two groups were seen as competition for scarce jobs, especially in the agricultural South and Midwest.)
As stated before Congress by Henry Anslinger, godfather of our federal drug control agencies, banning marijuana was a matter of protecting white women. Coming in off a heady run busting moonshiners, Anslinger probably hadn’t failed to notice that the 1932 end of alcohol prohibition could easily spell the end of his job unless he came up with more substances to demonize.
In a perhaps-not-so-coincidental coincidence, drug prohibition laws expanded in direct proportion to the success of the civil rights movement. Arguably, hippies were the intended target of stricter drug policy, but like any unenforceable law, drug prohibition became an easy tool to use selectively against anyone that law enforcement wanted to target. After the Seventies when the counterculture had gone underground, drug policy became a useful weapon against blacks, resulting in arrest and incarceration rates for blacks that far exceeded white rates. (This in spite of the fact that multiple studies have found that blacks were statistically less likely to use and traffic drugs than their white neighbors. More here.)
As progressive elements in American culture have worked to bring an end to racial discrimination, those most likely to be threatened by ‘Other’ have become more active in resistance. It hasn’t helped that cynical political interests have seized on racism as an easy button to push in gaining avid supporters. Hand in hand with religious extremism, racism is a reliable tool for galvanizing voters. In response, persons elected by these demographics are resistant to passing laws that could feasibly reduce racism or religious extremism.
As a result, racists and religious extremists have become key operatives in hate-fueled reactionary politics. Private schools and homeschooling have increased in direct proportion to forced school integration. Fights over academic standards and tax allocations to schools are essentially fights over whether minorities will have access to equal education. The development and expansion of suburban neighborhoods parallel the consolidation of minority groups in the inner cities. Every advantage offered to Blacks in order to help them break out of the poverty and cultural isolation spawned by their history in America is seen as a direct ‘taking’ by extremist whites.
Their kids. Their jobs. Their tax dollars given away to undeserving welfare queens. The depraved depth of this unreasoning mindset has come to the big screen with Barack Obama’s presidency. Who has more than eight seconds to spare?
Drug laws have spawned a vast and lucrative underworld where the uneducated and stigmatized minority can grab a piece of the American dream. This is the path whereby the white extremist’s worst nightmare comes true. The terrible ‘Other’ is not only clasped to our culture’s bosom through laws attempting to force equality but also empowered to own guns and defy police. That this point has been reached in an accelerating statistic of black on black crime fails to succor the terrified white extremist.
They are coming for you and they have guns, a fear not missed by the gun industry and its lobbyists. Another eight-second response.
The combination of white extremist fear, the fallout of drug prohibition, and the rise of militarized police forces has brought us to the brink of urban warfare. What might be a routine administrative process in a white neighborhood becomes a major SWAT operation in the black one where fifty men in body armor and wielding assault rifles storm an apartment with flash-bangs and battering rams in order to arrest a single black man. It’s a bigger operation than the take-down of Osama bin Laden.
This would be almost comical if it wasn’t so outrageous. So horrifying. So un-American.
There is nothing that we can do to immediately change the key factors which maintain the ‘Otherness’ of Blacks. They are not going to become light-skinned nor are their facial features going to become more European. They can’t immediately overcome centuries of failure by American law and institutions to facilitate equal and adequate skills conducive to social assimilation.
Unfortunately, there is also little we can do to immediately change the key factors which maintain the prejudices of extremist whites. They are of a willfully ignorant tradition, raised to see the world from an essentially defensive position. Like the minorities they despise, this segment of the white population is more often undereducated and poor. The threat is a misunderstood and exaggerated ‘Other’—other races, other nationalities, other religious beliefs, other lifestyles, other sexualities.
Taking down the Confederate flag as a symbolic act might reassure minorities and awaken whites to the underlying problem. But the backlash isn’t going to quickly die away. The flag has been an important identifier used to mark others of their own kind. Its denigration and disappearance only increases the extremists’ sense of threat.
What we absolutely must understand both on a personal level as well in our politics and public life is how much more remains to be done. Yes, we’ve come a long way. But much remains to be done. Government must become less ambivalent in enforcing meaningful educational standards and in addressing the physical and mental needs of families and children, not just for Blacks who have long suffered the parental nightmare of their children falling through the cracks, but for whites who ironically have the same problem.
Both need better reasoning skills and understanding of history.
Both must be brought to the table where they can meet and become friends with ‘Other.’
We can’t bargain hunt for solutions. We have to put our money on our people. All of them.
A rising tide lifts all boats.
[If you’re wondering about my use of a capital ‘B’ for Blacks and not a capital for whites, here’s some explanation.]