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Race: Not a Level Playing Field

Recently I was talking with another white person about race. I mentioned the study discussed in my last post, which demonstrates that white prejudice against black males is a factor in job hiring in New York City.  That part of the conversation went fine.  But we went on to discuss prejudice in our own neighborhood. In us.

Immediately, my friend got defensive.  "People of color do that, too," she insisted.  "They can be just as racist as anyone."  That argument is called "Parallelism".   Parallelism suggests that the playing field is level. The blue team can commit a foul, so can the red team.  I think it's erroneous.  Here's how the blog Resist Racism puts it: "An experience you have as a white person that you think is similar to an experience related by a person of color is not a valid proof that racism doesn't exist."

Here's an extreme example of parallelism:  In Germany in the late 1930s and early 40's, Jews didn't trust Germans.  Germans didn't trust the Jews, either.  But in those days, Europe was hardly a level playing field.

No, I am not saying that for people of color, America today might as well be Nazi Germany. And I'm not saying that people of color can't be prejudiced against white people.

But if we're willing to admit that "racism against people of color still exists out there in our society"--and most white people are--we also must take an additional step. Where is it in my life? In my neighborhood? In my heart?  My white friend's defensive attitude posed the question:  Are you accusing ME of being racist?  No. But we need to talk about race.  We need to examine our attitudes, because to avoid the race issue proves my point.  Who can afford to ignore racism against people of color?  Who can pretend it doesn't exist?  Only those who aren't affected by it.  It's called white privilege.

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Well put--a big YES to

Well put--a big YES to everything you said.
Susan

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Susan, Thank you! It's an

Susan, Thank you! It's an ongoing process. I used to think that either a person was prejudiced not at all prejudiced,and it's great to have more nuanced talks with my family about this.

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Hellen:

Years ago, I was taught by a fellow (who, ironically, has affiliated with a bigoted organization recently) a very useful way of looking at "racism":

Namely, we are almost all racists in a country like America, indeed as are citizens in many countries of the World, but racism is not the same thing as prejudice or bigotry. Racism, in this view, is simply the recognition of some apparent marking stereotype which separates one individual or group from another. In America, with our diverse population and cultures, we are more or less forced to confront various secondary characteristics: skin, hair, teeth, sex, class distinctions, body type, etc. The amount of discussion, public and private, devoted to to these basicaly insignificant human differences makes most of us "racists" in at least a minor way, whoever we are. Most of the problems and confusions caused by racism are caused at this level.

Now, if we begin to act on our racism by making value judgments, we begin to display obvious prejudice. "Blondes have more fun," some say; "blondes are dumb," say others. The majority of us hardly notice if a person is blonde or not in terms of evaluating that person's worth.

To take it a step further, a group of individuals go out of their way to put certain other individuals down, and to keep them down. These people are bigots; they get a kick out of asserting their superiority over another individual or group. This bigotry is directed against many people: blacks, jews, women, the elderly, blondes, etc. For over a hundred and fifty years, first the Irish, then the slavs, then the jews, then the Catholics, then the Italians, have suffered from prejudice and bigotry. Most recently, Latinos and Muslims have become "IT."

But the basic problem is one of making distinctions which, in our society, is almost unavoidable. Those distinctions need not be acted upon at all, which makes them so insidious.

I was puzzled a bit by your analogy, Helen, of "Germans" and "Jews" in the 1930's and 1940's. Germany was one of the few countries in Europe which accepted Jews after they were forced to "cross the pale" from Russia in large numbers during the late 19th Century; Germany allowed this group of immigrants to own property through historical precedent. [Overt antisemitizam was much more prevalent publicly in France, for instance, as suggested by the Dreyfus Affair.] But therein lay the problem in Germany, not so much different than some of our problems in America today. "Real Germans" (like "real Americans, in that time, and moreso, recently) resented advantages they felt were being given Jewish and other individuals or institutions. Common racism ripened beyond "toleration" into full blown prejudice, and in the economic and social collapse after World War I, became bigotry, which the Nazi Party, embracing "the Eugenics Craze," took political advantage of . . . too the point that it became doctrine which had to be delivered upon (the Final Solution). By the 1940's, there could have been little doubt of that.

I am disturbed by the violent language, the stirring up of old prejudices, and the outright bigotry displayed in America's present economic collapse, reach for empire, and the uprisings by generations of disappointed veterans from failed wars. We are not so very different, in terms of a seedbed, from Germany of the 1920's and 1930's.

But the basic problem is "racism," which we resist admitting we all share in.

Macresarf1 -- Glenn Anders -- Alex Fraser

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Yep, I admit I could have

Yep, I admit I could have been clearer about the Germans/Jews comparison in the light of the particular history of those decades. My point, though, is that one shouldn't claim that the mistrust that a group in power may have toward a less powerful group is IS THE SAME KIND OF MISTRUST that the powerless feel toward those who hold power over them.

The one holding the gun doesn't trust the one he's about to shoot, and the one about to be shot doesn't trust the one holding the gun--but they are experiencing two entirely different situations.

And while I agree that prejudice exists in all groups, I've heard too many white people claim that black prejudice against whites is merely the reverse as white prejudice against blacks. It isn't. It's of a different quality because of the history of race in this country. Until 1952, only "free white persons" were allowed to become naturalized citizens. When the 1790 naturalization law was first proposed, congress debated whether Jews and Catholics really were 'white.' In other words, historically, being black was equated with being unable to function fully as a citizen. That mindset hasn't evaporated.

--And I also disagree that the quality of black/white prejudice is 'interchangeable' because white privilege exists. If I am caught picking my nose in public, I won't worry that people think I'm doing so because I'm white. No Nobel prize winners have gone on record to question my intelligence because of my skin color.

I don't have to worry about people thinking I'm "so articulate" despite my race or that I "should keep a civil tongue in my head and know my place" because of my race or that the increasing presence of people who look like me are making the local grocery store less safe--all of which I have heard expressed by enlightened, "non-racist" white people.

Okay, I climb off the soapbox.

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Granted, Helen:

And I shouldn't have strayed off my main point, which is that, in order to have "normal" relations with our neighbors, whoever they may be, it is useful to recognize as a starting point that we are all probably "racists" in America. Anyone who is not must have been kept in a cell or cave during the formative years, his/her food and services provided down during periods of sleep. We are a racist, male-dominated, homophobic, profoundly ignorant society, despite our professions of superior and democratic values.

We have a lot of work to do, and the last thirty years do not provide a lot of evidence of progress, or support for optimism.

I like your reasoning, Helen.

Macresarf1 -- Glenn Anders -- Alex Fraser

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Granted, Helen:

And I shouldn't have strayed off my main point, which is that, in order to have "normal" relations with our neighbors, whoever they may be, it is useful to recognize as a starting point that we are all probably "racists" in America. Anyone who is not must have been kept in a cell or cave during the formative years, his/her food and services provided down during periods of sleep. We are a racist, male-dominated, homophobic, profoundly ignorant society, despite our professions of superior and democratic values.

We have a lot of work to do, and the last thirty years do not provide a lot of evidence of progress, or support for optimism.

I like your reasoning, Helen.

Macresarf1 -- Glenn Anders -- Alex Fraser

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Thanks...I really appreciate

Thanks...I really appreciate the vote of confidence...

I would hold the term "racism" and "racist" as pertaining to the specific system of white privilege, covert and not so covert injustice against people of color...maybe 'prejudice' is more universal. Just sayin'.