Saturday, November 19, 2011

Our Racist Habits

In the River Front times this week there is an article about the East Saint Louis Flyers football team. I have not completed the reading. It is an article about a successful hard driving coach who has his critics and has been sanctioned by a governing board. I have no doubt it is an article worth the reading. There was however a sentence that gave me pause.

I am paraphrasing because I did not take the paper home nor can I find a complete version on line. “Behind the bleachers in a large room sit 40 players all of them black.” What is the point of the adjective black? Is it intended to evoke some kind of nationalism or tribalism in people who self identify as Black? Is it intended to evoke some kind of pity for the underprivileged which we can assume by knowing a person’s skin color? Is this an attempt to address the demographics of East St. Louis? Or maybe it is just a very bad habit.

There is a knee jerk reaction to call a person racist when someone does anything that is objectionable well, that is either silly or redundant. We are Americans, citizens of a nation founded on racism, and to some degree we are all racist. Think of it as original sin. We are all sinners, most of us choose to try to avoid sin but we slip.

Years ago I returned from the service and heard a radio report on KMOX. It referred to the Black Alderman. I was not at the time a political being and so confused I gave the station a call. I asked why they were referred to as the “the black Alderman”. Was there some acknowledgement of apartheid made in my absence and now a portion of the cities legislators were restricted by race to given districts? I must admit the fellow on the other line was patient with my confusion and explained the reasoning for the adjective.

(Shortly afterward in traffic reports I also heard of a portion of the city referred to as the Depressed Section. “How horrible”, I thought, “What must it be like to live in an area described like that in the media.”Thankfully I did not expose that particular ignorance until today. But I digress)

When I was about thirty I realized that I shared this habit of unnecessary adjectives. Why when I told a story of a person walking down the street, a person I conversed with or a person with whom I had a conflict did I say, “This black guy” or “black woman”? What value did the descriptor add to the information being imparted? I asked my wife to correct me when I used the modifier for no good reason and I believe I have made progress in reducing this negative aspect of myself.

There are times it is appropriate. In a crowd of people it might be practical to identify a person by a descriptor for easy identification of for instance when one is describing tension which is attributable to cultural differences but these events are fairly rare. Or if they are not rare they are at least assumed as an element of the story and that is a problem in itself. When I was a boy my Grandfather might make a statement like,”Some of my friends are black.”You see it was an extraordinary exception and showed how forward thinking the white racist was. We have grown past the dark days of the 60s and 70s but still we use these modifiers.

Why do I think we should care? In the 17th century some peo0ple saw the benefit in permanently dividing us by race. Economically and politically they benefited from this division. I think it is obvious that some still benefit from this crime against humanity. Yet here we are 300 years later participating in the preservation of the division without even being aware. Most of us are not racist but we do racist things and we owe it to ourselves and our country to self monitor.

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