Thursday, August 6, 2009

137. What does racism really mean?

Use a word too often, or too indiscriminately, and it loses its meaning. Seems like everyone these days is being accused of being a racist, or racial profiling-so much that I am not sure what it really means anymore. Highlighted by the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor and polarized by the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., accusations of racism are being thrown around the political arena like an old rag doll. It continued last week when conservative talk show Glenn Beck host called President Barack Obama a racist, commenting, "I'm not saying he doesn't like white people, I'm saying he has a problem...this guy is, I believe, a racist."

Perhaps this quote exemplifies the confusion-"I am not saying he doesn't like white people, but. . . I believe he is a racist." He then went on to say that Obama has a "deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture." Huh?

Again, because the word is used so erratically, I think we have lost sight of what it really means to be a racist? Perhaps we have also lost our discretion in using the word-it used to be a serious charge to make, for both the person making the accusation and the person being accused.

In terms of dictionary definitions, the Macquarie Dictionary best summarizes my interpretation of racism: "the belief that human races have distinctive characteristics which determine their respective cultures, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule or dominate others." However, it is more than just the attitude that one's race is superior, it is acting on that attitude-often with anger and hate. It is also accomplished through socio-economics, denying opportunity to other races-usually to maintain the socio-economic status of one's own race.

However, even this perspective can get sticky. Imagine a private business owner whose only daughter just got married has a high-level finance position opening at his company. Further imagine that the only two candidates are his new son-in-law, who just graduated with a Bachelor's degree in finance from Ohio State, and another recent graduate, an African-American male with a MBA from Harvard. It is obvious who is the better candidate, but the question is, if he hires his son-in-law, is he a racist? The answer is probably not. The answer is that he wants to commit this opportunity to his new son-in-law, the man responsible for caring for his daughter. The truth is that he probably would have chosen his new son-in-law over any other candidate-regardless of gender, race or age.

Much has also been written about reverse discrimination in light of affirmative action programs-an area in which Sotomyer has been questioned. Here, the Supreme Court has ruled that in situations like college admissions, race can be a factor-to support a diverse educational environment. However, it cannot be an overwhelming factor, such that all minorities are accepted on the basis of race. Other situations though, such as the cases involving promotions, have brought different results.

Either way, whether you are the African-American that did not get the job, or the Caucasian that did not get accepted to college, it is difficult to understand. Both of these candidates will have to come to terms that these opportunities did not go to the most qualified person. Here, as anyone who has not been chosen for an opportunity knows, it is an uncomfortable feeling wondering why? Is it because of my race, age, gender, sexual-orientation or religious belief? Or is simply a situation where the opportunity is based on "who you know."

Perhaps the most discouraging use of the word ‘racism' is the emotional application to someone who does not deserve it. In the Gates case, there does seem to be an overreaction that included calling the cop a racist. Furthermore, it is discouraging how many African-American leaders, including President Obama, rushed to his defense. Is it true that there is some racial profiling in our police forces? Absolutely, the statistics are very concerning. Is this an example of it? I am not so sure. Furthermore, as African-American author Dr. Boyce Watkins wrote, this might have more to do with wealth and ego than race relations. The sad truth, on a couple of levels, is that had Gates been a poor African-American-nobody would ever have heard of this.

Racism is undoubtedly political, used both as a political ploy and a political philosophy. It is interesting that it has been Republicans such as Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich are using the word more and more-usually in regards to reverse discrimination. Among those that would find this ironic is Bill Maher who said, "Being a Republican doesn't make one a racist, but if one is a racist, he or she is probably a Republican." That might be a low blow, but there is certainly a very conservative segment of the Republican Party that still maintains a racist mentality-not only in regards to African-Americans but also immigration.

In the future, let's hope that before Beck, or anyone else for that matter, uses that term again, they really consider both what they are saying about someone's character, and what it means to people that really have been the victim of racism-people who have been beaten and killed simply based on their skin color. When Beck was reminded that most of Obama's top advisors were Caucasian, Beck about-faced with a "he was a racist before he wasn't" take. However, even if Obama hired his friends and family-who can blame him? Heck, maybe the Harvard MBA is still available.

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