One Last Word about Race
Last week, the world was abuzz with Andrew Breitbart’s posting of a video that depicted Shirley Sherrod in a racist light. As a result, the Obama administration (showing their usual fortitude when the going gets tough) called Ms. Sherrod while she was driving and demanded her immediate resignation. It was only after the full video came to light that the administration realized that in attempting to quell a political firestorm before it erupted, they triggered another. By Friday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was forced to issue a public apology and offer Ms. Sherrod a new job.
Most of the coverage of this event seems to gravitate towards one of two veins:
- The media messed things up badly by not vetting the story before airing/printing it. True enough, but then again, we haven’t had professional journalists in charge of newsrooms for a generation – I’m at a loss as to why anyone is surprised when gibberish comes out of them.
- The Obama administration over-reacted to a perceived political threat. Well… yes, they did. But this is hardly anything new for this President or his closest advisors. Don’t forget, Obama is the same guy who publicly dissed his own pastor rather than stomach the ensuing political fight while he was Candidate Obama.
But what is most disturbing to me is that once again, our Nation has let a potentially culture-altering moment slip into the abyss of silence. Because really, if you stop to think about it, this moment was created by our Nation’s inability to come to grips with our inherent cultural differences.
A quick history lesson: immediately prior to the scalping of Ms. Sherrod’s reputation by Mr. Breitbart, the NAACP issued a statement that, in effect, called the Tea Party a racist movement. What predicated that statement is a very real perception in communities of color that the very ideas expressed by the Tea Party movement are, in themselves, racist. Mr. Breitbart then either received or created an edited video seeming to depict a NAACP meeting espousing equally racist ideology, which he then posted to his blog. I have no way of knowing if Andrew Breitbart is racist. I have no way of knowing the same about the President of the NAACP, Ben Jealous, is a racist. I don’t know either man, and quite frankly, I could care less if either one is. This post isn’t directed to the true racists (be they white, black or whatever) – you know who you are, and you can stop reading here. The world has always had your kind and quite frankly, while we would be better off without you, at least you aren’t very ambiguous about your views.
But what the entire episode demonstrates is that our nation, conceived in the concept of equality for all, has a long way to go before we realize that ideal. And the reason we do is much more subtle than racism. It is called prejudice, and its ugly head will keep appearing in our national discourse until everyone does something about it.
Prejudice differs from racism in very profound ways. Odds are you harbor prejudicial tendencies – even if you aren’t aware of them. Prejudice simply means that your perception of something is biased by your subconscious thoughts, often irrationally. People generally harbor hundreds of prejudices, and not only in regards to race. You may prefer Chevrolets to Toyotas without knowing why. Perhaps your father and grandfather always drove Chevrolets and spoke rudely about Japanese automakers, which created a subconscious impression that Chevrolets are superior to Toyotas. Much the same away, impressions regarding race and racial stereotypes are given to us when we are young. In order to overcome them, we wind up spending a lifetime – and rarely succeed in entirely dispensing with our prejudices. Think about how you overcome your prejudices to any other thing, aside from race: you learn by association, constant and reinforced association. To go back to the car analogy, you probably start slowly. You go for a ride in a friends Toyota and discover the car isn’t that bad. Then you rent one for a business trip and discover that the car basically handles like any other car. Eventually, you buy one for yourself.
The speech given by Ms. Sherrod actually addressed that reality and her struggles to overcome her own prejudices. For those who still haven’t heard her biography, here is the Cliff’s Notes Version: her father, a civil rights activist, was murdered by the KKK when she was a girl. Nobody was ever brought to trial for the crime, which (unfortunately) was all too common for the time. Fast forward to 1990 and Ms. Sherrod is a paid advocate for poor farmers; she happens to get the case of a poor – but white – farmer. Succumbing to her own prejudices, she sends the farmer to a white lawyer for assistance. Only later does she realize that she had, because of prejudice, abandoned her duty to the farmer and make a conscious effort to never allow that to happen again.
In a not-so-violent way, I can relate to Ms. Sherrod’s story. I was raised in a relatively cloistered community, decidedly rural and definitely WASP-ish. I never met a person of a different ethnicity, much less race, before joining the Marine Corps. And I certainly had more than my share of racial missteps stemming from prejudices over the intervening 27 years. And like Ms. Sherrod, I make conscious efforts daily to not allow them to interfere with my daily life. Most of the time, I succeed. Occasionally, I do not. Those occasions where I fail, though, are moments I reflect on and identify the reasons for my failure. I then resolve to learn more about the cause of the particular prejudicial thought and reaction and address ways to overcome it. While I will never be able to say I have the life experience of somebody from a black community, I can learn to appreciate the culture. The same holds true with other communities my life has led me to interact with – Puerto Rican, Mexican, Chinese, and Philipino, Jewish and on the list goes. But you get the idea (I hope).
I truly believe that until we begin to associate with one another, not as hyphenated Americans but simply as Americans, until we learn to recognize that we all harbor prejudices and work to overcome them as individuals, we will never move past the issue of race in American life. The good news is that like many other people I’ve met, we can all overcome our personal prejudices without undue effort. It’s time to make that effort. It’s time to get out of our cloistered communities and begin that association – and to understand that until we begin to discuss those things that make us different we cannot discuss the things that bind us together.