The United States is still an amazing nation which attracts millions of people every year who want a better life. What they find when they come here, however, has to cause some dismay. As open as our society is it still has barriers, lines drawn in stark black and white. Racism remains at the core of nearly every aspect of public life.
Racism isn’t just a part of our culture – it seeps into everything. A discussion of public policy eventually degrades into “those people” who “take from the system”, a series of code words carefully intoned now that openly racist language has been purged from polite conversation. This year a certain demagogue has inflamed that speech into a violent public melee, and it horrifies us. Is this really America in 2016?
Yes, it is. Racism is at the core of everything. And we don’t know how to deal with it.
There’s no value in defending the open racists of today, but it is critical to understand them. Many of them are older people who woke up one morning in a nation they no longer recognize. They are scared by all of the changes that have taken place, many for the worse. There’s no loyalty by anyone on the job, few leaders who take the mantel of leadership seriously, and very little respect expressed by anyone. Something appears to have gone horribly wrong – and someone has to be responsible.
Understanding the problem, after all, is the first step towards fixing it.
It’s far too easy to look at the changes that have taken place and note that we do indeed have more non-whites in positions of power than ever before. Entertainers, business leaders, cultural icons – even the President himself – are non-white people in charge in ways they never were before. In a nation that defines itself by race confusing the problems and this change is simple. It’s “those people” who are to blame.
Enter a certain candidate who taps into this and says what people have been afraid to say aloud before.
While I am certain that, in the words of Bill Clinton, “There is nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what is right with America,” we have to be able to confront what has actually gone wrong to fix it. When the conversation invariably goes to “those people” as the source of all problems useful discussion comes to a halt. We can’t fix a thing because we can’t even describe what has gone wrong. The poison of racism infects everything.
Take, for example, the decline in jobs. As we’ve noted before there is no correlation between job loss, even in manufacturing, and free trade with Mexico. But it is easy to blame that nation for our problems because our national conversation eventually has to turn to race. The real problem, increasing automation and a consistent devaluing of workers and their work, goes largely unmentioned. It’s those awful trade deals that are the problem and “those people” who benefit – Mexicans and Chinese.
Our foreign policy, based largely on bombing people around the world, is horrific on the face of it – but enjoys widespread support. If the people we were killing on a routine basis were as pale as I am would we have a different opinion? I’m certain we would. Killing “those people” isn’t a big deal. They aren’t “us”.
As more black people rise up to defend themselves from the real and obvious threat to their very lives caused by the racism that divides us, discussion becomes even more polarized. If anything, the ground gained by obvious racism in the public discourse is almost certainly in response to the rise of genuine talk about how racism kills as it is an uncorking of the “political correctness” boiled racism back into the atmosphere. Some of this we simply have to work through, ugly as it is, before we can have an honest talk about race from the heart.
That doesn’t excuse the poison, but it puts it into context. Anyone who thought that ending White Privilege would be easy hasn’t paid any attention to history or culture.
In this election year, we can expect that people will vote along racial lines even more strongly than they have. In 2012, Blacks voted 93-6 for Obama, with a turnout over 66%. Hispanics went for Obama 71-27 with a 48% turnout. If Hispanics vote the same as blacks this time, scared to the polls by Trump, we would see a net swing of 10M more Democratic voters – electing likely nominee Clinton in a landslide and possibly turning both Texas and Arizona blue in the process. That’s assuming nothing else changes.
When we can predict how someone will vote based on their race we have a serious problem. And you can see it plain as day in the numbers – no matter how ridiculous it is to call Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans, Fillipinos, and Colombians in one category or for that matter to expect that few of them have good reasons to be conservative by nature.
This is how the poison of racism plays out in an election, yes, but politics is much more than about how we vote and who is in power. It must be about improving people’s lives – whether that means fixing things in public places or simply getting out of their way, if you are more conservative. Nevermind that. Race seeps into every conversation long before the root problems of policy have a chance at entering public discourse.
Meanwhile, some citizens of this great nation genuinely fear for their lives because of the color of their skin.
What is the root problem of this nation in this time? If you ask a young white person what limits them, they might tell you the system is corrupt or that the establishment is bought and paid for. If you ask a young minority they’ll probably tell you that racism is what holds them back.
Ultimately, I have to side with the minorities who live in a world apart from privilege. Like the workers who attempted to organize in the filthy factories more than a century ago, race is what separates us and keeps us from uniting. Race is what prevents us from talking about root problems. Race is what defines our public life and is the primary force that holds people back.
That’s not to say we can’t fix it if we start being honest. If we only could turn down the volume and get past the anger fueled by fear to confront what really scares white America we could have a chance of getting past it.
I promise you, in the end, America is so much bigger than you or I can ever possibly imagine. Seeing that, as a new arrival must, is our only true chance for salvation as we confront the racism that makes our nation feel so much smaller than it really is.
Tell me what you think. Add your thoughts because we won’t put a stop to this unless we start talking with respectful yet authentic voices.