In the past I've started these with a preface. All I would like to do is reiterate that I am by no means an authority on anything I discuss here, it's simply the way I see things. I'm certain that my limited knowledge on these subjects may keep me from considering salient points - but this is where I stand, at the moment, with what I know.
Race and Ethnic Relations in Our Country
First, a little history on my upbringing:
I grew up in rural Kentucky. My parents grew up in Virginia suring the 1950's and 1960's and had witnessed a lot of the segregation battles of that time period. My mom can remember segregated city buses and drinking fountains in the schools. My parents took care to raise their children with an understanding and tolerance for different people.
My elementary/middle school had exactly one black person. No people of Asian descent, Latin descent. No Jews, no Muslims. Save the one black kid, everyone was as WASP as you can imagine. It was not uncommon to hear racial slurs slung as insults or grossly tasteless ethnic humor. High school was much different. The highschool was located in the county seat, which had a high black population. And uncommonly black in comparison to other rural towns in the area, and I'm sure, the state. Still no Latinos, Asians, etc, but, talk about culture shock. The school was well integrated and the issue of race was seldom a concern. Black and white kids were equally involved in student government, athletics, and academics in proportions roughly equivalent to the corresponding populations.
Sometime, as a young man, I began to see color less and less as I became involved in increasingly integrated social circles. I began to notice that, while my parents certainly are not racists by any means, the color of one's skin, when it's something other than white is used as a descriptor. Of course, they are not the only ones, lots of people are like this. How many times have you heard someone (or done it yourself) start a conversation segment with something like "I was at the grocery store today and there was this black lady. She had the most amazing blah blah blah." That's what I mean when I say I started seeing color less and less. I mean, it would be absurd to start the same conversation with "there was this white lady." Unless the person's color has something to do with the topic, which I find is very seldom the case, I don't see its relevance.
To keep things simple, I'm going to talk in terms of black and white. If we want to be picky about things, as of the 2000 census, blacks are not even the largest minorty group anymore, Hispanics are. But in terms of the history of blacks and whites in our country, sheer population sizes do not diminsh the experience of blacks in our nation's history, so it is largely with that in mind that I want to remain focused.
It didn't occur to me the extent to which I had become color blind until one day a few years ago, I had to go to my parent's for some reason and my friend Dwayne came a long for the ride. Dwayne and I had been friends for a while and I'd mentioned him in casual conversation with my parents on occasion. We got out there, my mom made us some lunch. The funny thing about all of this is that a few days later my Mom says to me "I didn't know Dwayne was black." Now, I'm not so color blind that I don't know that Dwayne is black, but it never occured to me as being relevant. Like this was pertinent information that my parents needed to know about my friend.
The above example I think is going to be instrumental in how race relations in our country play out over the next few decades, a long with a concept I call "white guilt". The Gen X generation is the first generation in American history to not have "white guilt". We've never lived during a period of segregation and overt, institutional racism. In the coming decades, as the last of the Baby Boomers die off, there will be no one around who can remember these things first hand. Some people find this cause for alarm, worried that the proverb of not knowing your history and its consequences. I for one welcome a society free of white guilt because it means we can finally get around to the business of assimilation.
Assimilation is a term used by sociologists. Roughly speaking, it means that whenever a minority population mingles with a majority population, whether by force or otherwise, the minority population will eventually assimilate to the values of the majority population. It is an inevitability. The PC, multi-culti atmosphere of the past decade has been quaint and has gone a long way to creating an atmosphere of tolerance in the majority community, but there comes a time when the blending must occur.
When I think about this with concern to the black population in our society, I'm reminded of a great scene in the the film School Daze by Spike Lee. Laurence Fishburne plays a red-black-and-green, Africa medallion-wearing campus radical whose nemesis is the president of the campus fraternity. For a good deal of the film, you feel sympathetic for Fishburne's character. He takes pride in his race and culture and leads anti-apartheid demonstrations in contrast to the fraternity president's superficial values, painted as a modern day Uncle Tom sell-out. Without recounting the entire film, after a run-in with some of the townies at a local eatery (a scene with rising-star/unknown Samuel L. Jackson) in which Fishburne is taken down a notch, he hits rock bottom after a verbal confrontation with the fraterntiy president. To paraphrase his line, the fraternity president says "We are all without question African-Americans." Which for me summed up in one sentence my view on assimilation and the tumulutuous history between the races. It is a travesty of humanity that for centuries people were scooped up out of Africae and brought here as slaves. But that was 500 years ago. It has been 150 years since the abolishment of slavery and nearly 40 years since the abolishment of legal segregation.
We need to get around to the business of true integration. And I see that happening all around me and I love it. This is not to say that there aren't still racist rednecks, or for that matter, black power militants. I find either viewpoint just as unsavory. The homogenzation of the extremes to a middle ground is the only way we will get past the divisive issue of race in our culture. White people: to you I say, they won't bite. Black people: to you I say, stop being sensitive over petty shit and worry about the real issues. Celebrate and laugh at our differences, and let's create atmospheres where we can do this. The politically correct climate of the past couple of decades have hindered us from loosening up and engaging in honest every day conversations. Who cares if it's African or Afro American? Who cares if it's black or colored? The person's still an asshole, or a friend, or a peer. The nitpicking over language to classify every possible stripe of human being and walking around on eggshells to make sure we're using the right word is silly. Like George Carlin said, "There's nothing inherently good or bad about the word nigger, it's whether or not there's a bigoted asshole using it." I find it amusing that newspapers treat it like a swear word, often blanking it out. White people have been cowed into to calling it "the N word", when they're just making reference to it - not using it as a slur.
It bothers me when a white person is talking about something that borders on the issue of race and they lower their voice to a whisper when they say "black person" and does an extra inspection of the ear-shot vicinity for a black dude.. It bothers me when some self-righteous honky finds my re-showing of the Black Macarena offensive, first shown to me by my buddy Ike. (Ask me sometime, it's a riot). Incidentally, Ike, whose mother is white and whose father is black, is typical of the type of friends I keep. We used to work together and when someone did something stupid, he'd shake it head and sigh "Black people" (or "White people", depending on the situation). Dwayne's brother J.J. showed an interest in The White Stripes one day when riding in my car and I offered to burn him a mix of White Stripes songs. He said no rather emphatically and I shot back "Afraid they'll revoke your ghetto memebership card in the 'hood if they hear the White Stripes bumpin' from your apartment?" There was another white person in the car who I didn't know very well and you could almost feel him shrinking in his seat. Heh, J.J. still tells that story everytime I see him in mixed company.
So I guess that's the first thing is to dismantle all this PC bullshit. Which looks like is starting to happen, thank god. But with regard to public policy, I'm not so sure where I stand. I tend to think affirmative action has served its usefulness. The process by which academic institutions admit people now is so uniform that a lot of people are accepted based purely on merit and achievement. Ditto the corporation level. It is so competetive that notions that a corporation would shoot itself in the foot by not considering all of the qualified people regardless of their skin color is ludicrous. So, again, I don't see it as being institutional problems. The problem is at a social level. We're not integrated enough. Inner city schools will always be at a disadvantage to the ones in the 'burbs - the problem is that we are still socially segregated as a society so that minorty populations are skewed into lower class demographics. This is a result of a lot of things, one is the simple dynamics of immigrant populations. Immigrants to any country always take generations to establish themselves. In a technical sense, blacks "immigrated" at the end of the Civil War and didn't receive full citizen status until the 1960's. So the way I look at it, it's simply a function of time. Programs like affirmative action were probably necessary to play catchup, and operated partly out of "white guilt". There were never any reparations for travesties incurred by blacks in this country, so it's understandble. Some people still think there should be reparations and I'm apt to agree. I would propose something simple like an amnesty on federal taxes for a set number of years, basically to repay the billions of dollars made on the backs of free labor. I also think Clinton's reform of the welfare system was warranted and necessary. The welfare system has long trapped people in cycles of dependency on the state. Not just blacks, people in general, but given the long period of disadvantage for blacks, this trapped them in a cycle that wasn't easily broken. The welfare system was developed in response to the Great Depression, an era of unparalleled economic turmoil. This was due largely in part to the transition from our agrarian based economy to an industrial one. It was growing pains that were horrific, yet necessary. It's not likely we will see something of that magnitutde again. The safety net of the welfare system had become a system of entitlement and abuse and was in serious need of overhaul.
But I got offtrack. Assimilation. Comedian Dave Chapelle introduced a skit of his by saying he had shown it to a friend and his friend told him that he had single handedly set back race relations 20 years. If you've seen it you know what I'm talking about. In the skit, Chapelle plays a blind black man who thinks he's white because he grew up in an orphanage in the South during the 1950's and his caregivers thought it would be simpler on everyone at the all-blind orphanage. Well, he was never set right and grew up, married a white blind woman and became a memeber of the KKK. The entire skit leads up to the moment that his hood is removed at a rally for the first time and he, along with its members, learn the truth for the first time. It is an incredibly funny and subversive skit, probably one of the most subversive things I've seen in a long time. There's this one scene, on the way to the rally when Chapelle leans out of the truck window and yells at a bunch of kids in the convertible beside the truck to "turn that nigger music down, you niggers!" referring to the hiphop boomin' from the Mercedes' sound system. Of course, the Mercedes is fulla G-thug white kids and one says to the other "Did he just call us niggers?" and the other goes "Yeah!" and they proceed to high five each other. Later, at the end of the skit, the post-logue to the "documentary" about this character is that after finding out he was white, he divorced his wife of 40 years because she was a "nigger lover". (ha!)
Chapelle points out something we already are witnessing. Assimilation in reverse. Since the 1920's, white kids have flocked to black culture just because it pissed their parents off. But lately it seems not so much as an issue of rebellion, but as a general lack of that white guilt, because, for the most part, their parents don't really care that they're listening to rap music. There was a brief issue with it in the '80's, with the PMRC and all of that hoopla, but now, a white kid listening to rap music is about as threatening as them listening to the Backstreet Boys. Urban chic has been in full affect since the early '90's and shows little signs of slowing down anytime soon. The problem is, this is only a one way assimilation of culture. Go to a rock club and you might see one black dude with his white friends. Sure the greatest rock guitarists to pick up the instrument was a black man, but how many black kids are in rock bands today as a result of it? Well, there was Hootie and the Blowfish.
All kidding aside. From where I sit, blacks have been, like other immigrant populations before them, self-segregated themselves in terms of culture. I understand this is due in some part to very real residential segregation and I'm not saying you can force different cultures on people, people have different tastes. But as a general rule it seems to be the case that black culture has resisted assimilation. I think time will lessen this. Along with "white guilt" there is also "black mistrust". I mean, I can understand how an entire race of people could be a little wary of adopting the values and culture of the race of people who persecuted them for centuries. This I suspect will fade more as the Baby Boomer generation dies off as well.
Never the less, it is an inevitability if history is any indicator. It just moves slowly. I don't know that I expressed myself as succinctly as I hoped I would on this topic. It's a tough one to talk about because you have to generalize when we are all individuals after all. But it's the generalizations you can't be afraid of. Ethnic humor and poking fun at our stereotypical differences should be encouraged as long as it isn't mean spirited. Recognition of these differences and not fearing them is the key to integratiion. People will always find reasons to hate each other over perceived differences that they don't understand. It's too simplistic to say "But we're really not all that different from each other" because that's bullshit. We are different from each other. It's just that it's not the color of skin that makes the difference it's a person's place in life. We just need to learn about the differences so we're not ignorant of them. I'm convinced that 95% of fear is ignorance. With fear comes anxiety and mistrust.
Or like Warren Beatty says in Bullworth: We just need to keep fucking 'til we're all the same color.