A white southerner takes another look at racism

We’ve been reeling lately from blatant issues of racism in our country that illustrate how much work there is yet to do in matters of racial equality. We thought we were making some headway, at least that’s what we kept telling ourselves, yet we continue to be hit with evidence to the contrary. This year is was Freddie Gray in Baltimore dying in police custody from a spinal cord injury. Last year it was Eric Garner dying in New York City after a choke hold by the arresting policemen. There was also the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; before that it was Trayvon Martin in Florida. All the while, we have seen numerous laws passed throughout the country that made it harder for African-Americans to vote.

Our racial bias is evident, and it’s not just in the South. Just this summer, The New York Times released its summer reading list with nothing but white authors – and The New York Times is supposed to know better. Moreover, we have a prison system nationwide that is systematically removing black men from society, and most of us take no notice at all.

Now we are faced with another mass shooting, this time in an historic African American Church in Charleston, South Carolina, that highlights the blindness and the hatred that still exists in our nation. How have we gone this long with blinders on, refusing to deal with prejudice and hate?

The hopeful moment that fell apart 

I’ll never forget the electricity, the excitement and the amazement that I felt when Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. I had to work that day, so I set the DVR to record. At work, people gathered in the breakroom to watch Mr. Obama take the oath of office. The sea of people, as far as the camera could take into its field, spread down the National Mall and spilled into the streets. One of my college buddies was there, sending pictures via Facebook as the event unfolded. What an accomplishment! This country had elected an African-American president, and I was witnessing it in my lifetime after having seen the struggle for civil rights during my childhood. Perhaps we have made a breakthrough, I thought.

What I was not prepared for, however, was the almost immediate outpouring of hatred seen in social media comments and in the Tea Party’s media events. Bear in mind that the day President Obama was elected, our nation’s most popular hate site, Stormfront.org, received so much traffic that it shut down. I realized that the racism that I had witnessed in the South growing up never really went away; it just lay dormant until people became threatened by the notion of an African-American President. I really should have seen it before, but my white working class eyes kept missing the clues.

One such clue surfaced recently when some friends and I went out for Sunday brunch at a popular restaurant in town. The place was busy – we had to wait for a while before a table was available – but the service was good and the food well prepared.  By the time we sat down, we noticed that all of the people serving in the restaurant that day were African-American. As one friend put it, “the people who are doing the serving, the cooking and the cleaning,  are the same ones who cooked and cleaned in 1850 – something is wrong with that.”

What is wrong with that is that we look at how far we have come since the civil rights movement of the 1960s while we fail to see how much has remained the same. We tell ourselves we are making progress and doing fine, while entire segments of society continue to face injustice and oppression.

Persistent cultural racism

It is true that our country has made great strides for equality. On the day of President Obama’s first inauguration, I was thrilled to see how far our nation had come. Dismay soon followed with a deluge of verbal attacks on the president making thinly-veiled references to his race, and the unspoken (and frequently denied) racism in the call to “take our country back.”

When I have pointed out the element of inherent racism in the system to some of my friends on the far right, the response has usually been quick denial. Someone at one point asked if I placed myself among the racists in the privileged class. After giving it some thought this was my response:

Racism, via Shutterstock

Racism, via Shutterstock

Speaking as a white man and having grown up in the segregated South, I have to say that what was ingrained in us culturally is very difficult to shake. We learned not to use the “N” word and thought that meant we were no longer racist. In truth, there are a thousand other ways we show disrespect without always realizing it.

I am challenged to examine those cultural things that I take for granted but which may be painful or disrespectful to someone else. So yes, I would say that because I was born white, I have to try harder to understand the plight of the black, the Hispanic, and the immigrant in our society. I must examine the attitudes I have, the jokes I think are funny, and the phrases I use that may try to put one person down just to make me feel more secure.

In addition to examining our personal attitudes, we must face up to our systemic social inequities. We can no longer pat ourselves on the back for allowing blacks into our schools when the combination of white-flight and social elitism has left us with schools that are every bit as segregated as they were in the 1950s, and entire neighborhoods living with economic devastation and little hope for advancement. We can no longer tell ourselves how wonderful we are as a society to grant equal opportunity, when those opportunities often seem to be mere isolated tokens compared to the larger needs that exist. 

It is time to listen

I am no mover or shaker; I can claim no gifts at social organizing. One thing I can do is to listen. That is what I recommend to all of my white cohorts, privileged and working-class alike. We must start listening to those who are oppressed and excluded from society. We must hear the black community when it speaks of police brutality, unfair voting regulations, exclusionary institutions and bias in the judicial system. We must also be willing to listen to all of those who have a stake in our society but limited representation – the LGBT community, immigrants, etc. White men such as myself don’t know what it’s like to live in an America in which the game is rigged in someone else’s favor. If we don’t listen, we run the risk of thinking our problems are solved just because we’re in good shape.

I may not like everything I hear, but I need to be listening. I do know that on a personal level when we truly listen to someone else’s story, it can change our whole orientation and attitude. We have had a very long spiral of racial unease that has now hit us all with pain, heartache and tragedy. It is time that we listen, on a national level, to someone else’s story.

Charles Kinnaird is one of those English Majors who went on to find gainful employment in the varied fields of teaching, social services, and healthcare. He makes his home in the South with his family along with a menagerie of pets. His writing interests, as seen on his blog, Not Dark Yet (http://notdarkyet-commentary.blogspot.com), include politics, spirituality, social commentary, and striving toward the common good.

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10 Responses to “A white southerner takes another look at racism”

  1. postmodernpooh2 says:

    In a country where everything white people do is now considered racist, it is indeed easy to miss some things.

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  3. Houndentenor says:

    Exactly. White people busted for drugs often go to rehab. Black people caught with far less go straight to jail. In addition the penalties for drugs more commonly used by black people are higher than those normally used by whites. We could go on all day.

    One other problem: the media. they bend over backwards not to call people out when they are caught lying and not to call them out on racism, even when they give a speech to a white supremacist group. They are easily shamed. I remember once Joe Scarborough having a fit on Morning Joe “that’s the worst thing you can call someone!” (meaning racist) No, actually, it’s not but everyone backed down even though the situation involved was indeed racist. Enough of this. We need leaders. (I was going to say leaders who aren’t afraid to speak the truth but just plain leaders would be a nice change.)

  4. Holly Blackler says:

    That last sentence was perfect – I read it, took it as an exaggerated hyperbole, and then remembered that that actually happened. Crazy.

  5. Bill_Perdue says:

    I don’t agree.

    Racism is promoted, in the sense of enabled, by the twin parties of the rich. They also pass racist laws, appoint or run racist judges and prosecutors and see to the hiring of racist cops. The media do play a role in excusing racism and the other anti-worker policies of the rich, but it’s minor compared to those who run the system from the WH and other organs of power.

    As for the twin parties of the rich, they have organizational difference stemming
    from their ongoing competition for bribes and power. Democrat/Dixiecrat and Republican politicians have most of the same policies but they have competing personal interest. They all want to leave office and become rich sleazemeisters like the Clintons, and earlier, the Bushes and Roosevelt’s, and soon, Obama.

  6. Indigo says:

    I would say the issues are promoted by the media rather than lay them at the foot of the Democratic and Republican halves of the Corporate Party. The two-fold system we once boasted about is long gone and currently ineffectual. But the media still has power and corporate propaganda is its fuel.

  7. Bill_Perdue says:

    Racism is a national problem and like homophobic bigotry and misogyny, are tools of the rich used as part of their divide and rule strategy. They’re institutionalized and promoted by the rich, via the instruments of the Democrat and Republican parties and they only help the rich.

  8. Jon Green says:

    We need a featured image for thumbnails and the homepage, and we have to cite that image.

  9. KarenJ says:

    If the listeners can resist the temptation so many right wingers fall prey to, focusing on the few grifters and truly bad people rather than looking at the big picture, where evidence of real racial injustice is there to be seen — and heard.

    The number of black men and women in prison is a case in point. Black women get incarcerated for years for a shoplifting episode or leaving a kid in a car for 10 minutes while applying for a job. White women get a warning, and 20 hours of community service. Black men get thrown in prison for the maximum penalty for a couple of spliffs. White guys are allowed to go about their business after the spliffs are confiscated (then planted on the next black guy who is stopped for a broken taillight).

  10. emjayay says:

    As usual, the Shutterstock image is a pointless visual distraction.

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