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Racism: Le Plus Que….

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One of my favourite commentators on social issues is Rick Salutin who writes a weekly column for the Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada. Unabashedly left wing he nevertheless is unafraid of criticizing the tactics and policies of the political left. Unlike a lot of writers on the left he doesn’t get hung up in intellectualizing over issues. He manages to keep both of his feet firmly on the ground.

His career has included stints as a playwright and novelist. He was one of the people involved in the early 1970’s in helping develop professional Canadian theatre. His contributions and support helped to establish the small alternative theatres that have since seen Toronto grow to one of the larger live theatre centres in North America, second only to Los Angeles and New York in per capita attendance and facilities.

His columns are often thought provoking, and he is never afraid of poking his pen into issues that others may have felt best left alone. This weeks article is no exception as it raises the spectre of racism in the United State.*

Forty one years ago Edgar Ray Killen, a former Klansman was involved in the murders of three civil rights workers. He has been recently sentenced to sixty years in prison, which he will have to serve in isolation due to fear of retaliation from other prisoners.

“It’s kind of a race issue,” said a state official, “in that our [prison] population is 70 per cent black.” This is what I find perplexing about the “race issue” in the United States. They seem to deal with it impressively. And they don’t seem to deal with it at all.

Mr. Salutin’s comment on the state official’s statement serves as an introduction to an outline of the contradictions on the lives of black people in the States. He points out the amazing advances that have happened in the last forty years: a black Secretary of State, (Colin Powell) followed by a female black as Secretary of State(Ms. Rice)Such things he says would not have been believed possible forty years ago.

He cites a book written by a Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal which stated that for the United State to achieve its full potential it would need to come up with a solution to racism. He went on to add that for that to happen major fundamental changes in the fabric of the society would have to occur.

Mr. Salutin points out that on the surface America has managed to do the one without the other. The only societal change that has occurred has been the treatment of individuals by other individuals. In other words personal overt racism is no longer the norm as it was forth years ago. All other aspects of the consumer driven society have stayed relatively the same.

Yet, however much the United States has changed, it remains fervently capitalist, globally interventionist and busily religious in a traditional or fundamentalist way. It has, in other words, managed to accommodate a lot of racial change without seeing its basics profoundly undermined.

What does that say about racism? Does it mean that it was never as deeply entrenched in the American psyche as was first suspected, or have all these changes only been on the surface, or only for a select few?

Mr. Salutin adds one more detail to the mix that seems to emphasise the latter view over the former. One of the basic structures of American society is the disparity between the two races economically and socially. There are still a disproportionate number of blacks incarcerated, without access to health insurance, and living in poverty compared to their white compatriots.

How can a society deal so widely, successfully and, I’d argue, fairly earnestly with race — yet still not have dealt with so much of it?

The great thing about Rick Salutin’s pieces is that he leaves you hanging. Like a modern day Socrates( the Greek guy not the Brazilian soccer player) he poses questions to get you thinking about the issues he considers important. Having survived this long treading like a fool(definitely not an angel) I will venture to continue where he left off.

Just in case anyone gets the wrong idea I’d like to say in advance that I’m not one of those sanctimonious Canadians who when it comes to issues of race believe they are better then Americans. I’ve seen too many “Paki” bashings, and heard too many racist comments that are firmly believed and ingrained, to know better then to swallow the line that somehow Canadians are less racist then Americans. We’ve shown that given the opportunity and means we’re every bit as bigoted as the next person. Nothing to boast about but true.

The question for both of our countries is why, even though overt racism has disappeared, have certain ethnic groups not been able to break out of the cycle of poverty, violence and crime? While one could say that the poverty and lack of opportunities that accompanies those living conditions are sufficient reason themselves.

Take government cutbacks to funding for education and public health as an example. Poorer neighbourhoods do not have the ability to have the community pick up the financial slack as would a more affluent centre. This leaves a growing gap in the quality of services. But economic environmental issues while important, do not tell the whole story.

Our society remains a competitive environment based upon a first past the pole winner take all attitude. When there is an established head start for a certain group in that atmosphere, and another group had to fight for hundreds of years just to be allowed into the race, who do you think will have the advantage? Even if two people are of equal skill and character if you have a lap head start your going to cross the finish line first. For the most part you only need to be half as smart as your opponent under those conditions to leave him choking in your dust.

Then there is the issue of trust. How long, how many generations, does it take for a formally subjected race to trust and be trusted by the former oppressors. Even though a significant number of European heritage people live in similar conditions it’s hard not to perceive your situation as being enforced on you when your parents’ generation were not able to receive service with people of the same economic status because of skin colour. What would that do to your ability to trust in the equality of a system?

For those on the other side of the fence wouldn’t you always have the slightest feeling of worry that these people who maybe your parents prevented from voting might just like revenge. Isn’t there a little voice inside your head that says well if I had had my land stolen, and been treated like dirt I know I would, and doesn’t that colour your dealings with them?

Be honest now, even though lynching is a thing of the past, if you were a black man would you be comfortable being pulled over by the police in a major metropolitan city? As a white person don’t a group of young black inner city men make you nervous?

In Kingston Ontario where I live there was an ongoing argument about whether or not a disproportionate number of black males were being routinely stopped by the police. The chief of police very bravely had his officers keep records of the race of the people they stopped to try and pinpoint any sort of pattern. These records, admittedly gathered over a short period of time so of some limited accuracy, produced numbers that verified the original assumption.

Interestingly enough because of these efforts on the part of the police force relations between the black community and the police have improved. The police were willing and brave enough to question their own behaviour which served to increase the bonds of trust. Even though the figures backed up a presumption of racism the effort was seen as a positive step towards dealing with a problem.

Instead of denial and increased tension a step was taken towards some semblance of reconciliation and understanding. It will be interesting to see what occurs in the wake of this experiment. It will take steps like these, ones which admit that all is not rosy in our integrated world to break down the barriers of mistrust.

When I hear comments coming out of supposedly liberal people like “Oh this is a wonderful community, only 1% black” when talking about potential housing in the States(my in laws) I can’t help but agree with Mr. Myrdal when he says that it will take a fundamental change in the fabric of our society for racism to be eliminated.

As long as we perpetuate a system that places value upon material wealth while simultaneously depriving a good portion of our people with even the opportunity to compete for the prizes, resentment, mistrust, and fear will be our constant companions. Neither Canada or America, or any country for that matter, will ever realize it’s full potential as long as divisions remain between any of it’s peoples because of real or perceived discrimination.

Colin Powell, Ms. Rice, and other people of colour or a visible minority group, in a position of power will continue to have the taint of tokenism attached to them, no matter their political stripe, as long as the balance of power is so heavily tilted in one direction. After we as a society have accomplished so much more then any one could have anticipated in the times since the Freedom Riders went down to Mississippi forty odd years ago, are we not doing a disservice to the memory of those who died by leaving what they started unfinished?

This will only be accomplished by admitting the problem still exists and to stop sweeping it under the carpet. The American satirist Lenny Bruce once said that until the day comes when a child doesn’t run home from school crying because someone called them a “nigger” we can not stop fighting for equality. We need to change our objective to being until the day comes that we don’t think in terms of skin colour at all we can not stop our fight for equality.

*Rick Salutin, Toronto Globe and Mail, Friday June 24th/05. Due to the subscription nature of www.globeandmail.com I’m unable to provide a link to this article.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://www.docofdiets.com dietdoc

    gypsyman writes: “Be honest now, even though lynching is a thing of the past, if you were a black man would you be comfortable being pulled over by the police in a major metropolitan city? As a white person don’t a group of young black inner city men make you nervous?

    Reply: Since I can not imagine myself as a black man – I can sympathize but I am not able to empathize – I can only answer that as a white man, I sure as heck get nervous pulled over by a policeman in a metropolitan city. In my experience (and, yes, I do have some), in most major metropolitan cities the predominant number of policemen are black men. The only times I have been pulled over in my city (>1 million in the greater metropolitan area), it has been by a black policeman. As to your second question, no, a group of black inner city men do not make me nervous. This is quite possibly because I am niave and past 50.

    But, I do not dispute your argument. Racism does live in the United States. I think it is more of a balanced conflict now, though, than in the past.

    Case in point: I read an article recently about a young black woman’s family fighting to bring the attention (again) of the media to the disappearance of the lady a year ago last week. One of the family members said very clearly that, the reason why the media is neglecting the story was, partly, because of the coverage of the Alabama teenager’s disappearance in Aruba. She, the family spokesperson, basically said the still-missing black woman would be getting more coverage if she was white. This, a year after her initial disappearance and after being the focus of intense media attention at the time and highlighted on America’s Most Wanted several times. In our current day and times, every race has a very strong card to play.

    Race, I am certain, will always be an issue – in every country where races live together. One race will claim their problems are due to the other race and the other race will claim their problems are due to another race. Such is the “noble” human race. No one would ever dare say that most of the people in prison are of one particular race because that particular race might be involved in criminal enterprise at a high relative percentage of the population.

    Fortunately, the playing field is fairly level for most races in America today. Whenever someone wants to blame their personal of group ills on someone else, there will always be someone in the media to listen to them.

    Cheers,

    Ron

  • Bennett

    Ron – “No one would ever dare say that most of the people in prison are of one particular race because that particular race might be involved in criminal enterprise at a high relative percentage of the population.

    But is this true? I’d really like to know if it is. Of ALL of the crimes committed in the USA, are 70% of them committed by AA citizens? Level data, you know, the type of crimes that led to the incarceration of those serving time.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    For the most part the American solution to racism is to declare that it no longer exists and then wait for reality to catch up with rhetoric. To a large extent that approach does work, but there remain elements in society which are resistent to that sort of change. No matter what we do, there will always be a few people who are racist for purely personal reasons, and nothing can ever change that. There are racists in every country, even the most liberal like Canada, just because that’s the way some people are.

    There is also an ongoing, incorrect perception of ‘institutionalized racism’ in the US. People from the outside look at the high number of blacks in prison and the relatively large number living in poverty, and conclude that this is the result of racism. While it is true that racism may be an element, the main reason why that segment of the population is ‘oppressed’ is not racism, but geography and history, some of which derives from the racism of the distant past. When blacks historically live in ethnic neighborhoods and get caught in a cycle of fatherless families from generation to generation, it creates a self-perpetuating culture of oppression, characterized by poverty, crime and government dependence. This is not the result of anything that government or non-blacks are doing now, but the legacy of a past which has been erased in every overt way, but which has left behind after-effects which to some extent the african american community chooses to perpetuate.

    As demonstrated by people like Rice and Powell, just being black doesn’t hold you back in America. If you’re raised outside of the oppressive black culture you have every opportunity the society affords to anyone else. But being raised black, poor and in the south or in an urban ghetto does hold you back. If you break out of that environment you can still succeed, but if you bow to inertia and stay in that environment you are likely to be doomed to repeat the mistakes of past generations.

    The problem is that no one really knows how to address this dynamic, because it’s one which is to a large extent self-imposed and encouraged by black leaders who use the oppression of their own people to advance their political careers. Keeping the black population poor and ignorant and controlled creates a large and easily manipulated power base which some take advantage of. These leaders act to block any kind of institutional effort to bring true relief to their captive base of support, so progress is very, very slow.

    Dave

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    a self-perpetuating culture of oppression, characterized by poverty, crime and government dependence. This is not the result of anything that government or non-blacks are doing now…

    Oh? Isn’t the government still compensating fathers who abandon their families (via ADC payments)? Once a family, a child, is “caught” in this cycle, the benevolent welfare state takes every step that, in the past, has served to keep people in thrall to the payments.

    Yes, some are strong-willed enough to break free. Yes, one’s neighborhood (read: culture) and family life have more to do with whether one will end up in prison or poverty, or not.

    That does not excuse the perpetuation of a cycle which is plainly unjust to payees as well as payors.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    True enough, but how do you break down the culture when the people who are enmired in it don’t cooperate? Attempts to force change have been met with outrage and resistence. Many of the possible solutions to this problem are themselves decried as racist by the people they’re supposed to help.

    Dave

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    You don’t break down the culture, Dave, you remove the artificial supports for it, or replace them with props that incrementally move individuals in the neighborhood away from their current entrenched path.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    So, you’re supporting arresting Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and sending them to GITMO and then sending the national guard into Watts and South Central and every other black neighborhood and forcibly relocating them to the suburbs?

    No, I know you mean a more measured approach to the problem, but in the end it sort of comes down to something awfully similar to the aculturation program against Indians which was being discussed on another thread.

    Dave

  • http://ideaplace.blogspot.com Randy Kirk

    Quick demographics. I’m white. Live in a mixed neighborhood 60+% black. My wife is half Mexican. My sons best friends are a total mix. However, he points to balkanization on campus. My neighbor who is a admin at local Jr. College sees it, too. Big problem to overcome is cultural differences like music, language, attitudes.

    The crime/poverty issue for blacks today can largely be laid at the feet of the men. Most of the women I know are hard working. The men in my neighborhood are, but it is a very upscale area. Outside of this neighborhood (a few blocks, in fact.) the men commonly fit the stereotype.

    P.S. I am nervous if the group I see approaching me is dressed in gang regalia, regardless of their skin color. Ten really big black men dressed in suits and ties or hawaiian shirts don’t cause my heart to skip a beat.

  • Nancy

    Not that long ago, Bill Cosby had the guts to speak up about his notions of what the problems were w/black americans. Some people agreed, but the ones the criticism was aimed at – those who nurtured ‘ghetto culture’ & ‘ebonics’, were outraged and reacted very much as if he were suggesting genocide. Which to them I suppose it was. They claimed that he could afford to say that, because he was a rich ‘Tom’. But he didn’t start out that way: he was born & grew up in the ghettos & slums of Philadelphia, so he is not unfamiliar with the situtations and barriers, & the very hard work involved in breaking out of same. But he did it, and his point was, anybody else could, too.

    How that would play out in today’s economy, where a huge percentage of our jobs have gone overseas, is anybody’s guess. But I do know from my own neighbors (I live in a 50-50, 50% white, so the other 50% is mostly black, w/some latino & asian thrown in) that the problem they discuss is getting the kids to stop acting & talking like gangstas even when they come from good middle-class families. A lot of young blacks & latinos seem to idolize the street thug culture, if they’re not actually involved (in the case of the latinos) in the real thing such as MS-15, which is making considerable inroads even into working & middle class families. In the case of actual slum/ghetto families, the gangsta culture is the culture they all grew up with, and getting out of it would be akin to me switching to theirs. The commonalities are tenuous, to say the least. You’d have to be pretty damn motivated to learn a whole different language, voice intonation, accent, way of walking, dressing, even basic behavior that often goes unnoticed, and most kids don’t and can’t even think that far ahead, whatever their race. An example of aforementioned extreme behavior modification: most young ghetto blacks, when speaking to elders or someone in authority, avert their eyes. To the average white, this is a sign of shiftiness; to them, it’s a mark of respect. When someone has to get down to this level of changing their behavior to meet the ‘standards’, that’s pretty severe. I don’t know if I could do it. It would take the kind of intense coaching Eliza had in My Fair Lady, which certainly is not available to most poor urban kids or adults. Still and all, a lot of them do make it; but those who do tend to be from an economic level already based in the general cultural ‘norm’. Now, this is all changing with the influx of latinos who are no longer a true minority. I wonder if in the not-to-distant future, white kids are going to be equally at a disadvantage, because they don’t adapt to a latino-dominated culture, with all the little nuances of behavior, etc.?

  • http://spaces.msn.com/members/dorksandlosers Tan The Man

    Yea, some of the black communities tried to quiet his comments or try to condemn them. It’s almost as if they were as part of the racism problem as “white” people, which makes Cosby’s statements all the more true.

  • Nancy

    Can’t help but think of a quote from Up The Down Staircase: “the cream will always rise to the top; it’s the skim milk we have to work with.” Rice came from a very privileged background most whites can’t match. I believe Powell worked his way up from a working class family, but I don’t think it was as bad as ghetto/slum class, and then he married very, very well, to a woman from another privileged background that few persons of any race have access to, so it could be argued this gave them more than an edge. But then there’s Cosby, and any number of entertainers and athletes … but how many kids can reasonably attain superstardom? It’s really not a viable goal for the majority, of any race.

  • http://www.docofdiets.com dietdoc

    Dave writes: “For the most part the American solution to racism is to declare that it no longer exists and then wait for reality to catch up with rhetoric.

    Reply: Sorry for still whipping this horse but, as some pointed out, what do we do with the many, many minority politicians and “spiritual leaders” that make their not-so-ghetto livings off condeming racism? AS long as there are people shouting “that’s racism!” at the top of the lungs, we will have the perception that racism remains. There are a lot of very vocal, well-publicized speakers in this country who would have to start speaking about the deforestation of the Amazon or pet abandonment in America if the race pulpit were declared irrelevant.

    I am afraid we are in a ever-perpetuating cycle that will be here for the foreseeable future. As long as there are speaker’s fees and a willing media with cameras, race will continue to be a keynote address topic. And as long as people hear, from their “leaders,” that race exists, it will exist in their hearts and minds.

    DrPat makes a valid point in that goivernment entitlements make a lot of the “culture of helplessness” possible. In this vein, I always shock my friends when I start to extol the rhetoric of Louis Farrakan and the good ideas he has about race. He, like Bill Cosby, lays the perpetuation of the victim myth squarely at the feet of the black community. On these topics, he speaks to the entire problem and offers real solutions for its resolution.

    But, my original point remains: there will always be racism in every culture.

    I have enjoyed reading your comments.

    Cheers,

    Ron

  • http://www.docofdiets.com dietdoc

    To reinforce my earlier point about racism and its ubiquitous reach, please seek out the story about Oprah Winfrey “rebuff” (translation: “diss”) at the Hermes boutique in Paris. The link via CNN is at:

    http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/TV/06/22/oprah.apology/

    Even the rich, powerful and famous get turned out for racial reasons. I am thankful – not for the obvious slight to Ms. Winfrey – but that this did not happen in America. While I realize it happens every day to lesser mortals than she in our country every day, just imagine what a can of worms this particular even would be! It is worthy of an entire BLOG but I will leave that to someone more eloquent than I.

    Cheers,

    Ron

  • http://www.pippensqueak.blogspot.com gypsyman

    Hey Ron.
    I read the link and if that’s racism then I’m one of the bigest racists in the world and I don’t discriminate if your black white or green.
    There’s nothing more agravating for someone working retail to have a customer show up after the store is closed. I know having told people the door is locked, I’m counting the money, and I’m going home on more then one occasion. If they persisted I would get rude, and not care because quite frankly they’re just trying to break into the store if the door is locked.

    I think Ms.Ophra is getting a little full of herself expecting a store to re open just for her when she shows up fifteen minutes after they have closed. What’s probably really pissing her off is that they didn’t recognize her and kiss butt for her like they would back home in America.

    Playing the race card in situations like that, if Hermes’ version is the right one, is rude and insulting to anyone who has ever been treated badly. Ms. Oprah needs a humility lesson if that’s the case.

    Actually she does anyway. I hope it wasn’t racially motivated and the guard was just peeved at a rich bitch thinking she was more important then she was. It would serve her right

    cheers gypsyman

    can you tell what my opinion of Oprah is? Bleeech!!!

  • http://www.docofdiets.com dietdoc

    gypseyman writes: “I read the link and if that’s racism then I’m one of the bigest racists in the world and I don’t discriminate if your black white or green.

    Reply: I agree that, if this were the most blatant example of racism in the world, we have much to be proud of. It is ironic that of all the millions of truly racially-motivated crimes experienced in the world every day (whether red, green, black, white, or purple), this is the one that gets the media spotlight. We truly need to get our priorities (and our definitions of racism) straight.

    Cheers,

    Ron

  • Nancy

    I agree also: Ms. Winfrey’s ego has outgrown her common sense. The only reason they didn’t let her in was because they were CLOSED. Customers still in the store were allowed to finish up, but no one else was allowed in. This is common practice, not racism. To expect & demand that level of special treatment displays an arrogance that is not only repulsive, but deserves to be put in its place, so to speak.

  • http://www.docofdiets.com dietdoc

    nancy writes: “To expect & demand that level of special treatment displays an arrogance that is not only repulsive, but deserves to be put in its place, so to speak.

    Reply: And that, m’lady, speaks to the entire issue of historical injustice, perceived entitlements and the racism chasm that continues to exist in America today.

    Cheers,

    Ron

  • Nancy

    Does not. How does her race have anything to do with showing up after closing time, being reasonably denied entrance, and then going around making up lies about it was because she was black that they wouldn’t let her in? I include myself in that kind of corrective behavior, were I to act that rudely and nastily. And I’m not black. But I have gotten my nose put back in joint when I’ve gotten too big for my britches once or twice, and I deserved it, too. Being black or white had nothing to do with it, but being rude and arrogant (for me, at least) did. Why should people of different races be held to different standards?

    Now, if they had a policy of letting in wealthy white women after closing, that’s another matter entirely. But there’s no evidence they did, or do. Until then, she’s the one at fault.

  • http://www.docofdiets.com dietdoc

    Nancy, I was attempting to be facetious and, in the digital medium, that is difficult. I was agreeing with your previous comments.

    Sorry to have posted such an ambiguous message.

    Cheers,

    Ron

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