Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Race Today

In the last year, America has experienced almost a revolution in terms of race, ethnicity and how the two interact within society. The election of the first black president, Barack Obama, showed just how far America has come in terms of the overcoming the stigma of race. Or perhaps it showed how much race is still a factor within American society. It depends upon one's point of view. This was followed by the much ballyhooed case that went before the Supreme Court on the issue of white firefighters being denied promotion due to an insufficient number of minorities passing a promotion exam in New Haven, Connecticut - and the role played by the all-but-confirmed Sonia Sotomayor who will likely be the first Hispanic on the US Supreme Court. And the most recent example of race relations in the US is the case involving a white police officer arresting Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, a black Harvard professor which, on its own was newsworthy but escalated with the additional (and some might feel inflammatory) comments by President Obama on the case.

Certainly the election of the first black president is a sign of tremendous progress on the issue of race in America. It could be argued that it is a tremendous sign of progress in almost any Western nation - most of which have not equaled the feat. At the time of his election, it was being hailed as the "post-racial" era. Presumably, this meant that the era of racism was quickly reaching its denouement. However, and this is something that I pointed out at the time privately, racism is still a relevant issue in the United States and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the election of a black man (or woman, for that matter) did not signal an end to the path started generations earlier. Frankly, the beginning of the end for that issue will occur when a white man (or woman) can freely criticize that elected official for whatever reason and not be immediately labeled a racist. And it is clear from the reactions that have been shown toward those with the temerity to criticize the current president that the nation is still not approaching that point.

The white firefighters filed suit to claim their promotions shortly after the city of New Haven declared the results to be invalid and that there would be no promotions at that time due to the lack of minority candidates passing the exam. Their case was pursued all the way to the Supreme Court - along the way being denied by current Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor - where it was awarded its final merit and declared that the city did not have the right to deny them a promotion based on the lack of a higher number of qualified minority candidates. Some felt this signaled the end of race-based quotas while others felt this was clearly a strike against Ms. Sotomayor being elevated to the Supreme Court as her earlier decision in the case was overruled. But the decision did not resolve the underlying issues concerning race-based quotas and that will continue to be an issue for the immediate future. But this can be seen as part of a backlash against the race-based quota system under the larger aegis of affirmative action. Is affirmative action something that is no longer needed? Certainly it is debatable and there is merit on both sides of the argument. Certainly everyone should be given the same opportunities to succeed - after all, that is the founding promise of America. But are quotas the best way to even the playing field? Would not equal opportunities to education be an equal solution, if not better? And while it can be argued that educational opportunities for minorities are certainly better than they were 40 years ago, that does not mean that they are equal. Perhaps if affirmative action were aimed more toward education, then it would not be so polarizing for adults.

The case of racial profiling looms large when discussing Professor Gates. Was his a case of racial profiling? There is not enough public information to say for certain. But Colin Powell put it well. There was probably an over-reaction on both the part of Prof. Gates as well as Sgt. Crowley. Prof. Gates was likely tired and did not like being challenged in his own home and felt that race was the leading factor in him being questioned. Sgt. Crowley probably did not like being challenged for questioning Prof. Gates and, after a short time of listening to the professor, subsequently arrested and charged him with disorderly conduct - a charge that was soon dismissed. But it does beg the question of whether the perception by blacks is that, even when innocent, are they being challenged because of their race or because of other issues? And do the police profile potential suspects? Absolutely! Just as everyone does profiling of one sort or another. An older black man wearing a suit may not attract the attention of the police as quickly as a black youth wearing a bandanna. A young white man in shorts and sandals may not get a job as easily as a black youth wearing a shirt and tie. Everyone judges others by what they see immediately and color is one of those things that is immediately visible to everyone. But to argue that the profiling takes place only because of color is to suggest that we can know the motivations of others - something that simply is not possible. We know only what we see, hear and touch. We cannot prove what someone else is thinking. Indeed, everything else is subjective. But perhaps some good will come of this as it may be an opportunity for others to talk and be heard and to communicate and learn from others.

Institutionalized racism is no longer acceptable but that does not mean that racism is gone, only that it is not so overt as it was in earlier generations. It is unlikely that it will ever truly go away unless we all go blind and color no longer holds any meaning. But it does not mean that we should hold judgment based only on one's color nor necessarily withhold judgment solely for the same reason. Perhaps, with time and patience, we can learn that the definition of people is, and should be, based on the person themselves and not what is seen at first glance.

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