Monday, March 24, 2008
Declare War on Racism
Barack Obama’s speech on our nation’s racial divide juxtaposed with the fifth anniversary of our invasion of Iraq gives us an opportunity to declare another war—a war on racism in America. With race on the front pages, the opportunity is ripe for President Bush and all of the presidential hopefuls to declare war on bigotry and hate.
More than 150 years after the Civil War and 50 years after the Civil Rights Act and the end of the national origins immigration system, racism continues in the United States. From hate speech and hate crimes to employment discrimination and forms of social preference, subtle actions and institutionalized racism continue to challenge our nation. A few years back when Trent Lott was sharply criticized for racist sentiment at Strom Thurmond’s retirement party, we saw Democrats and Republicans alike agree that racism is wholly and completely unacceptable. But after Lott stepped aside, addressing racism was pushed to the back burner again, allowed to eat away at our nation’s character. Any talk of improving race relations remains hushed and polite when it occurs at all.
The problem with polite talk on these issues is that it lets the vast majority of the nation off the hook. The nation ends up treating overt incidents as the exception, regarding those instances as the occasional target. In fact the prime target should be the foundation of institutionalized racism that has created an environment that enables subtle and unconscious racism and emboldens perpetrators of racist speech and acts.
We need more than polite talk. We need a sense of outrage and indignation. We need massive mobilization over the issue. We need a declaration of war. The declaration of war on the evils of hate and racism must be loud and constant. Just as we have poured millions of dollars into campaigns against drugs and smoking, into efforts to address recycling and other environmental concerns, we need attention-grabbing strategies to begin now, in the midst of current recognition that improving race relations matters. We need a clear vision statement on these issues to serve as the basis for this moral declaration. We must be driven, not politely, because we are beyond politeness on the evils of hate and prejudice that our leaders acknowledge are not American values. Let’s put our heads together on this national priority. Be creative and imaginative in approaches. Set an example. Call for new laws, enforcement of existing regulations, smart coalition-building, civility, respect and approaches to addressing actions and private attitudes. Make that call loud and clear and remind us over and over. Make it part of the national psyche, not just part of the national agenda.
The public face of American pluralism—dominated by politicians, professionals and community leaders—is mostly positive. The problem is with the private off-camera face of America that fails to teach our children and challenge our neighbors to be respectful of others. We all share to varying degrees the blame for a culture that gives rise to hate speech and ethnic animosity. Every time we engage in even subtle racism or the fostering of stereotypes, we perpetuate that culture. As much as each of us shares the blame, each of us can be part of the solution. Every time we reach out to others whom we have been conditioned to distrust, fear, or subordinate because of culture, race or class, we begin to chip away at the wicked culture that gives rise to irrational hatred, animosity, and violence.
In the aftermath of the September 11 tragedies, President Bush spoke out against hate crimes directed at Americans of South Asian, Pakistani, Arab, and Muslim descent. He urged “Americans not to use this as an opportunity to pick on somebody that doesn't look like you, or doesn't share your religion.” But since then, he and other leaders have done little to demonstrate sophisticated knowledge about the racialized structures of our society that continue to keep down underprivileged blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and many Asian Americans. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get serious as a nation and as individuals.