Sunday, June 30, 2013

America's Racial Paradox

Some - perhaps many - Americans like to think that our nation has entered a "post-racial" era, where racial prejudice and discrimination is just a thing of the past. After all, people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds have risen to positions of prominence in government (up to and including the presidency), business, the medical and legal fields, and just about any other position of status you could think of. But does that make us "post-racial?"

Three news stories of the past week raise the question of exactly how far we have actually come since the civil rights movement. Fifty years is a long time, but is it enough time to erase the preceding centuries of prejudice and discrimination? Is it enough time to truly level the playing field of "White privilege?"

It seems unlikely, and each of our lived experience is likely enough to tell us that, although we do tend to consider people of varied races and ethnicities "equal" - equally intelligent, equally able, equally moral, equally "human" - we also judge each other according to negative stereotypes. These judgments don't just go in one direction - everyone seems to have them toward racial/ethnic groups other than their own.

Some folks would like to sweep these judgments under the rug - claim that signs of equality (such as people of color who hold positions of power) represent the absence of prejudice. These folks see this week's Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Bill as further evidence that racial injustice is a thing of the past. However, others, including the ACLU and NAACP, warn that the Court's decision poses a risk precisely because of the continued existence of prejudice.

So, what exactly did the Court say? The Voting Rights Bill was first passed in 1965, and renewed in 2006. This bill required specific States, counties, and municipalities to have any changes to voting policy, including districting, approved by the Justice Department ahead of time. The Supreme Court threw out the list of places required to obtain this "preclearance," not because targeting certain places is in itself unconstitutional, but because the list was based on evidence gathered in the 1960s. In other words, the Court did NOT say that such oversight is no longer needed. Instead, they said that Congress needs to determine WHERE such oversight is needed on the basis of current evidence, rather than 50-year-old data. The clear implication is that current evidence would indeed show some places in our country where the racial climate warrants judicial oversight to ensure voter rights.

The Supreme Court is one of the three news stories I mentioned earlier. What about the other two?

The first illustrates our attempt to repudiate our racial past. Paula Deen, a famous cook, tv personality, and author, lost the vast majority of her contracts (for tv, books, and product endorsements) after admitting in a deposition that she has used the "n-word" in the past. Now, Paula Deen was born in Georgia, in 1947. In other words, she grew up in the deep South prior to the Civil Rights movement. I would have been shocked if she HADN'T even used the "n-word." It is ludicrous to judge her so harshly for being a part of the culture of that time and place. It certainly should not be taken as evidence that her current beliefs and behavior are racist. My psychodynamic side wonders whether we, as a society, are attacking in her what we are trying to deny about ourselves and our own societal history.

The last of this week's news stories is an illustration of how racial prejudices continue to shape our collective psyche. George Zimmerman, a Florida man who is half-White and half-Latino, has gone on trial for shooting an African American teenager named Trayvon Martin. As a member of the neighborhood watch, George Zimmerman is reported to have followed Trayvon Martin, while calling the police to report a "suspicious" person, before a confrontation during which Zimmerman ended up shooting and killing Martin. While the defense is claiming self-defense, the prosecution claims that Zimmerman racially-profiled Martin, assuming he was a criminal because of his race and gender.

The outcomes of all three of these news stories are yet to be determined. However, what they demonstrate (at least from my perspective) is that our society is desperate to distance ourselves from any hints of racism, at the same time these hints belie the myth that America is "post-racial." We're just not there, yet; and it's going to be pretty hard to get there if we can't acknowledge and talk about it!

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