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.