I recently attended the Conversations on Race discussion series cosponsored by the Women’s Center and Civic and Community Engagement Center. While the event offered me the experience to sit with intelligent people to reflect on students’ perceptions of racism on campus, what was most intriguing about the thought-provoking discussion is the need for the discussion in the first place.
There appears to be an ongoing narrative that Americans live in a post-racial society, or are on the verge of achieving it; this belief is only furthered by the cultural myths and the media’s influence that have historically been in favor of the master narrative, which reinforces the privileged few by virtue of class, race, gender, sexual orientation and religion.
However, racial discrepancies are rarely acknowledged in journalistic reports when discussing the overwhelming racial divide in subjects like income and unemployment. For example, my social issues class saw a 60 Minutes report titled “Hard Times Generation: Homeless Kids,” which detailed the national increase in child poverty. While I am not a fan of most mass media news programs, this report is admittedly well done — but still, there is missing information in terms of the number of racial and ethnic identities that the study encompasses.
According to the National Poverty Center, one of every three African-American children and one of every four Latino children live in poverty; this statistic is two times higher than the rate for white children.
The 60 Minutes report would seem to be a perfect opportunity to bring this statistic or others like it up – however, the program failed to do so.
When the media discusses racial hierarchy, there appears to be an effort to discuss it in a vacuum, so that it becomes disconnected from other social hierarchies, namely classism, which it is integrally linked to. This is a major injustice. Due to this and the lack of coverage for fairly obvious forms of de jure segregation, racism in the present appears to be nothing more than a couple of isolated incidents and not as the gross, hideous social hierarchy it truly is.
In regard to cultural myths, there are two at play. The first myth is what I would like to call the new generation myth. This entails the belief that as each generation is born and takes power, the mistakes and sins of the former will be erased simply on the virtue of there being a new generation and subsequently their ‘new’ values and ideas at play. Now, I am not normally one to heavily critique my own generation, as I feel the qualms people have with this generation are problems that can be seen in others just expressing themselves in different ways. However, I will make an exception when pertaining to this topic. If you expect this new generation to end racism or at least minimize it to a significant degree, then you will be sadly disappointed.
According to a 2012 study by the American National Election Studies, more than 20 percent of white people between the ages of 17 and 34 view blacks as unintelligent and more than 30 percent view blacks as lazy. Also, when asked about the validity of the statement, “generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class," only 30 percent of whites agreed. These percentages are very comparable to percentages of white 65 and older who were asked about the same statement. In this age group, 35 percent agreed. This leads into the next myth of the American dream; the idea that social classes are completely fluid and a person can simply achieve his success solely on the virtue of his hard work, and that subsequent success will benefit not only him, but also society at large. This myth is ignorant to the reality of racism.
Blacks and other minorities have faced countless obstacles from slavery to segregation along lines of housing (especially in the aftermath of WWII), access to education and income. This puts racial and ethnic minorities into a difficult position to escape poverty as they lack the means to gain wealth and status despite aspirations or hard work. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle where poverty breeds more poverty and the social classes remain stagnant. To believe that people can simply pick themselves up by their bootstraps and achieve some fortune or status is false and prevents dealing with problems at hand. This kind of thinking only defends the dominant group, or aggressors, from any guilt or shame.
Unless there is a conscious effort to combat racism in our society via direct action, the situation will simply remain the same. It is not going to get better simply through time’s eroding nature. We must solve this ourselves and the first step in combating any issue is to acknowledge its existence.
It is time to stop this constant state of denial of the presence of institutionalized racial hierarchy and begin to address it. Do not be concerned with those who will call your efforts and acknowledgement of white privilege as reverse racism, for their position requires the ignorance of hundreds of years of racial oppression and the advantages of whites at the expense of others. It is also not time to cave in to accusations of idealism that racism can never be smashed.
As 19th century social anarchist Mikhail Bakunin once said, "By striving to do the impossible, man has always achieved what is possible. Those who have cautiously done no more than they believed possible have never taken a single step forward." We are human beings, achievers of the "impossible." Once we were unable to fly, and now we can. Once the celestial bodies seemed distant and unreachable, but we have set foot on one. Where once slavery was embraced, now it is ostracized, and where once humans were merely means to the end, now humans are that end.
Our potential is limitless; our capacity for good is never-ending. So let us encourage each other to smash this antiquated social hierarchy and embrace the values of freedom, equality and solidarity, which all human beings thrive in.