By Bruce Makous, Development Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania
I remember writing an essay in my freshman year at Oberlin College, about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King from the point of view of a young white man. It was 1972. I said all the correct liberal things, making my thesis that, as a result of Dr. King’s work, racism was on the wane, and the world was becoming a beautiful place. In tone, it was a little bit like “Get Together,” the song by the Youngbloods. “C’mon people now, smile on your brother. Ev’rybody get together, try to love one another right now. Right now.” (I remind you, it was 1972.)
My professor said I was an idiot. “Just read the newspapers,” he said. “The world hasn’t changed that much. Racism in the U.S. is just as prevalent as it was before King.” In fact, he went on to say, he thought it was getting worse. I thought he was nothing but a curmudgeon, and I was absolutely convinced that my views, though possibly a bit simplistic, would be proven true in time.
Ever since my daughter Kacie gave birth last May to a son, Matteo, I have been revisiting my thinking on racism, with a much more personal focus. His father Joe is from a Salvadoran family, and I’m sure Matteo will be perceived as a Latino person of mixed race and he will be affected by residual biases against persons of color. As a result, I’ve been wondering what the world will be like for him. What kinds of problems is he going to face in twenty years, say, as a young man starting a career and a life of his own?
I tend to think that, in the age of Obama, which Martin Luther King’s work made possible, the monster of racism is being held at bay to some extent, but that isn’t true in all aspects of society and it doesn’t apply everywhere in the U.S. In some ways, in fact, I’m afraid that my professor wasn’t as far off as I thought back then. The biggest problems today, in my opinion, are related to implicit racism, present nearly everywhere, as well as deeply rooted, overt or “traditional” racism in many geographical locations throughout the U.S.
Because implicit or institutional racism – present just about everywhere in schools, employment, housing, criminal justice, and many other aspects of society – is hidden in procedures, rules, business practices, and laws, its bias is elusive and hard to identify. Its presence in such places as school discipline rules, police practices, and discrimination in business is almost certain to penalize Matteo during his lifetime. Fortunately, organizations such as the ACLU and its allies are attacking these issues, and we are raising awareness and making significant progress case by case. While permanent elimination of such biases may be difficult and elusive, I’m optimistic that we will continue to make progress.
On the other hand, when I think about geographically and culturally based racism, which I think could even more significantly hurt Matteo, I’m much less optimistic. I’m reminded of a point that anthropologist Jared Diamond makes in The World Before Yesterday, about humans having a basic “kill or be killed” instinct. He uses the example that, when traditional people (those living in primitive circumstances) are walking in the woods and they see one or more strangers, they know they must strike out or risk being killed. The key word, he explains, is “stranger.” Small tribes are familiar with only a few people, and larger tribes have longer lists of people who aren’t strangers, so fewer people in their area whom they don’t know and therefore might have to kill.
Our DNA hasn’t changed all that much. We still don’t trust strangers, and that’s the root of racism. Familiarity leads to trust. Modern metropolises are very diverse places in which we become familiar with large numbers of widely varied groups of people. We can know and learn to trust many people who may be different from us.
The concern comes when you think of the many huge homogenous ghettos of white people, covering about half the U.S., with little regular familiarity with people of color and otherwise diverse groups of individuals. This homogeneity, which frequently has been intentionally created and propagated, reinforces and perpetuates the strangeness of “the other,” the kill-or-be-killed attitude against people who are non-white or otherwise different. Watching enlightened TV shows like Modern Family, for any who happen to be so inclined, isn’t enough to create a real comfort level.
The deeply rooted racism in those regions is a long way from elimination and could even be a permanent feature of the culture in many regions. My advice to Matteo with respect to those dangerous geographical areas will be to try to avoid them if he can. Fortunately, there are many other places where Matteo can find culturally enlightened people who get along with people of all races and ethnicities. In those places, we actually do smile on our brothers and try to make the world a more beautiful place. Matteo will be much happier in those places.
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Writing this piece gave me a chance to have some meaningful personal conversations about these topics, particularly with my ACLU-PA colleague, Reggie Shuford, and Joe Flores, my son-in-law, which helped me flesh out my point-of-view. (Thankfully, their comments weren’t quite as harsh as those of my professor.) As a result, the article is much better.
This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.