It’s a pity that the media is wasting an opportunity to have a genuine discussion about race relations in our country as the result of the Sen. Harry Reid controversy. The fact is that there is something worth learning from this episode for many white Americans. White Americans, especially older and even liberal ones like Harry Reid, have to begin to recognize that racism is more than just a political attitude. It is an emotional illness that has been ingrained in every American since the beginning of the country, including people of color as well. I say that older Americans have a greater bondage to racism because they grew up in a segregated society and have not had as much of an opportunity to develop and learn from the personal relationships with people of color. Harry Reid is having one of those moments right now.
I grew up in the Detroit area, and so I have had to “live and learn” my entire life that there are many forms of racism: conscious and subconscious. I came from a liberal home, but my liberal upbringing didn’t inoculate me from the fear and cultural ignorance or arrogance that has been woven into this Country’s history almost from the beginning. That is the real origin of racism. It is a subconscious process of differentiating and defining people based on the color of their skin. It is a perception based on stereotypes and ignorance that comes mainly from one thing: the lack of personal contact and relationships with people of other races. We fear the unknown, we fear the different.
My life’s experience has taught me that once you develop a relationship, whether personal or professional, with people of other races, the issue of race becomes more and more subtle and less problematic. Racist stereotyping or attitudes never completely go away, but they become less and less important emotionally when experience and personal relationships develop. In some cases, such as the integration of the Armed Services, the practical necessity of interdependence soon dissolves the barriers to personal transformation. Many of the closest friendships and bonds between men of different races have been formed in fox holes.
However, just simply forming relationships with people of different races is not sufficient to overcome racism. I had to be willing to question and confront my own thoughts and feelings before I could recognize the true extent of my own racism. Now, keep in mind that I was raised in a family that not only supported civil rights, but my parents put their lives on the line to pass civil rights laws (my father was a freedom rider in the most dangerous days of the movement). I have always had close friends of different races, and I litigate civil rights cases to this day. Yet, there have been times, when called out by my African-American friends that I had to realize that to really free my thinking and emotions from the bondage of racism, I had to be willing to be self-reflective and to learn. Freeing your mind from racism is not just a matter of adopting certain political and social attitudes – it is a matter of searching for the attitudes and emotions that cause us to relate to other human beings based on their race.
Will we ever become a society that doesn’t see or judge a person based on their race? I doubt it, simply because it is so ingrained structurally in our country. It is no secret why African-Americans consistently and constantly suffer from the highest rates of unemployment, incarceration and poverty. Yet when economic hard times like this also begin to affect white people, why do minorities (who are far more adversely affected) become the scapegoats? Why do white people like the tea-baggers identify “illegal immigration” and “socialism” (meaning to social programs for minorities) rather than the corporate oligarchy that has taken over the economy and created so much injustice? Why exploit the inherent fear and resentment of racism rather than an attempt to create social and economic justice?
People of color are not fooled by the faux-outrage of Republicans or Fox News – actions speak louder than words and the policies and actions of these people are obviously racist. They will continue to divide people based on race to perpetuate a political system in the service of the real source of economic and social injustice: protecting the 1%.
The words of Harry Reid were racist, but far less problematic to minorities than the threat posed by the actions of Republicans. Reid only embarrassed himself and discovered an element of his own racism. He has already overcome the most debilitating aspects of his own racism. His is the problem of recognizing the subtle extent to which his racism is ingrained after overcoming the larger obstacles of fear, resentment and hatred that causes one to advocate racist policies.