Let the race conversation begin - or not

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By John Hubbuch

Following Paula Deen's use of the "n-word" and George Zimmerman's acquittal, we once again are agonizing over racism in America. Attorney General Eric Holder sounds the call for meaningful discussion on the issue. I thought we had already exhausted the topic each time Barack Obama ran for president. Guess not.

The discussion is never very satisfying because the issue is so complex and emotional. Most white people avoid the discussion other than to express outrage against racism and sympathy for the victims. Their reticence is understandable. For the most part, whites are not directly impacted by racism, and they are vary wary of being called a racist. Being called out as a racist is almost as bad as being called a pedophile.

It's just easier, and safer, to keep your mouth shut. No doubt someone will call me a racist for writing this column.

Racism is a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities, and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race (Webster-Merriam on-line dictionary). Based on this definition, only a small percentage of Americans are racists — i.e. those who belong to the Ku Klux Klan. Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa were racist governments. The United States is not. The federal government and every state government has passed lots of laws banning discrimination in housing, hiring, public accommodation, voting — the list goes on and on. So this national conversation needs to stop assuming that the U. S. is a racist country.

It is not. It is a country in which racism exists.

We need to discuss who gets to decide what is racist and what is not. The press, national African-American organizations like the NAACP, and individual African-Americans are possibilities. Should white people have any say? What if not everyone agrees on racism? Here are some examples of potential racism:

1) Is it racist to use the "n-word" if one is quoting an African American?

2) Is it racist to observe that African-Americans commit proportionately more crime than whites?

3) Is it racist to maintain that more African-American dads should be doing more to raise their children?

4) Is it racist to acknowledge the terrible impact of slavery but to wonder when that impact will be over?

5) Is it racist to oppose monetary reparations for slavery?

6) Is it racist to cross the street when seeing African-American youths dressed like popular TV and movie gangstas because you think there is a small chance you might be robbed?

The list could go on and on. In determining what is racism, does it make a difference whether the person raising the issue is black or white? Does racism require intent?

Maybe racism should be considered a disease, passed on from parent to child. If so, is there a course of treatment? Should we feel sorry for the racist? Should schools have mandatory classes on racism?

Is racism relative? Is there a different standard in Birmingham, Ala. than there is in Santa Monica, Calif.?

Are there degrees of racism? If you make a statement that you don't think is racist, but an African-American does, then are you a racist? (We're back to the question of who determines racism.)

Finally, given the myriad laws banning racial discrimination, just how can we as a nation change the hearts and minds of our citizens with respect to this issue?

I'm pessimistic and skeptical about much progress happening in this national discussion in the short run. Maybe we're not ready for this discussion. Heretofore that discussion has been labored, contrived and overly emotional.

If we can't do any better, then maybe we should all just shut up.

Reader Comments

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Violet Aura  

Posted: August 5th, 2013 2:32 PM

UGH- deluded. The reason I mentioned "new money" is that people w/ generational wealth typically don't have that need to broadcast their bank accounts. So I consider North River Forest (from about Chicago Ave. north) to be quite tacky. The McMansions, the 4 cars, the excess. Hinsdale has a Jaguar dealership, which is no surprise because I see lots of those type of cars ober by dare. OP and RF have wealthy folks but most drive "normal" cars. Now that's classy to me!!! (Saying classy is not, LOL!)

Violet Aura  

Posted: August 5th, 2013 2:28 PM

Exhibit A is the Gold Coast. I see the people entering the schmancy hotels with the doormen out front and I am not impressed and actually pretty turned off. What is done to wealthy people (or insecure wannabes like some of the nouveau riche) is to flatter them with this pampering of their egos (waiting on them by opening their doors, driving them or whatever) and it's all an illusion. It's like visiting a stripper and giving her all your money because you are delude to think she's into you!

Violet Aura  

Posted: August 5th, 2013 2:20 PM

@Done: I guess you just skimmed over my remarks? Do you recall me mentioning my contention that Hinsdale is "trashy" IMO? So yeah, I covered it. I said that race and one's current life position have not a lot to do with one's class. There are people who are low-income on paper but they are intellectually curious and gravitate towards libraries, museums and other quiet activities and yes--there are ghetto millionaires who are loud and crass and live in upscale 'hoods. Lincoln Park comes to mind..

Done from Oak Park  

Posted: August 5th, 2013 1:58 PM

Violet - and what about those middle-class folks who act low-class - or even no-class?

Violet Aura  

Posted: August 5th, 2013 12:17 PM

I meant to say that race is secondary to class. So the division is less about one's melanin content or country of origin but the type of conditioning or memes imparted is more indicative of class structure. For instance, I always look at places like Hinsdale as "trashy," even though it's an area with money, good schools, etc. It has a materialistic vibration to me, while OP has always seemed about the intellect and creatively oriented. And that to me is a biggest draw to me.

Violet Aura  

Posted: August 5th, 2013 12:09 PM

Cont. appreciate various forms of art, share ideas, etc., then I will be naturally attracted to others who have these shared values. I am not interested in spinning rimz, grillz, working the pole, etc.

Violet Aura  

Posted: August 5th, 2013 12:07 PM

@Nick: Do you have any insight on why that would be? I do. I think that the real dividing line is CLASS. And class is not determined by how much money you earn per year, either. You can be low-income on paper but if you grew up in an environment which conditioned you to whatever middle-class values represent, you are influenced by that. And the truth is that we do not have much in common with people with whom we don't share interests. In other words, if I have been socialized to...

Nick former Oak Parker  

Posted: August 5th, 2013 11:56 AM

I left Oak Park two years ago after a very enjoyable 6 years in the village. One thing I am very pleased with living in San Francisco is that race is not at the forefront of all conversations. It is really easy to become a guilty white person by living in Oak Park and to think that everyone else cares about race first and foremost. What I have learned is that most people are dealing with their own problems and they could care less, positive or negative, about race. It is very freeing for

Rez  

Posted: July 28th, 2013 7:10 PM

VA, While we're on associations... Black can also stand for; formal (black tie), sexy (black dress), cool (black Cadillac) etc... White can also have negative connotations; the color of funeral wear in Chinese culture, the light at the end of the tunnel etc...

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 28th, 2013 6:34 PM

So there has always probably been some sort of unconscious association with skin color and positive or negative attributes. Jung speaks of the collective unconscious archetypes and I suspect this qualifies. But to take that ball and run with it is silly and unproductive. This essay contradicts itself by referring to BP as AAs and yet saying White, White, White.

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 28th, 2013 6:31 PM

I can't remember where I heard or read this but it has been said that BLACK stands for all that is negative in the world: BLACK cloud, BLACK sheep, BLACK mark, BLACK magic, etc. And dirt is black...The villain wears a black hat. WHITE represents purity: WHITE witch, WHITE magic, etc. Night is black and mysterious.

Speedway from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 28th, 2013 5:32 PM

It is not wrong to describe a person by the color of their hair or the color of their eyes. Yet when we talk of skin color this is considered racist. What is it in skin color that evokes so much feeling? What comes to your mind?

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 28th, 2013 5:10 PM

Anyone who becomes an American is officially hyphenated. In any case, I find it amusing that some people have no problem writing White and yet are afraid to write AA. Totally contradictory to what they claim they're all about. In any case, the way to talk about race is to make like Nike and just do it. Don't beat around the bush, don't PC-i-cize it. Just tell the truth.

Magpie  

Posted: July 28th, 2013 11:46 AM

@Violet - I believe the correct term, in Charlize Theron's case, would be Afrikaner.

Violet Aura  

Posted: July 27th, 2013 6:36 PM

#7: Is it racist to use WHITE and African-American in the same paragraph? Yes...why, yes it is! See, Charlize Theron is an actress from South Africa. She is Caucasian: blonde hair and pale skin. Probably blue eyes, to boot! She immigrated to the USA, hence is now officially an African-American. Why is WHITE outta sight and BLACK is whack?!

What??? from Oak Park  

Posted: July 27th, 2013 5:04 PM

Mr. Abbot, please come out of your bunker and into the light of day for once. Your incorrect, mouth-breathing, absolutist interpretation of 2nd Amendment supporters is laughable. It's hard to engage in a straightforward discussion with a leftist because they deal with emotions, not facts and logic.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 27th, 2013 3:47 PM

Last sentence - words should be "those rule" not "their rules."

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 27th, 2013 3:44 PM

David K - I agree with you on education but disagree on participation. Within their community and family/friend circle, African/Americans are very close and interact in a sincere manner. They protect and counsel each other irrespective of the circumstance. My observation is that it is the whites that have more difficulty in creating joint participation. The terms of the jointness is that African Americans should join in by participation on white turf doing white things. It takes guts for them to play by their rules as acceptance is weak and the feedback in their own neighborhoods is not pleasant.

David Keene from Denver  

Posted: July 27th, 2013 1:21 PM

I would argue that the problem isn't really racism per se. There are too many pleasant and well-educated African-Americans today to support the invidious racial conclusions of earlier centuries. The problem is the conduct of members of our society, or their lack of education or participation.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 25th, 2013 3:55 PM

It is hard to see how you dissect this subject without discussion poverty and education.

Uncommon Sense  

Posted: July 25th, 2013 1:31 PM

1) No 2) No 3) No 4) No 5) No 6) No

John Abbott from Oak Park  

Posted: July 25th, 2013 1:26 PM

Meanwhile, one of America's most divisive issues -- gun rights and a legal agenda driven by absolutist interpretations of the Second Amendment -- is largely driven by an NRA that uses, in barely coded language, imaginary scenarios of race war as the foundation for much of its argument. Seems to me, Mr. Hubbuch, that America would benefit from straightforward discussion of these and so many other issues.

John Abbott from Oak Park   

Posted: July 25th, 2013 1:22 PM

Why hinge everything on an abstract discussion of race, when so much of our public life & controversies are driven by racial agendas? So let's say, for the sake of argument, that the USA is not a racist country. And yet, right here and now, hidden in plain sight, one of its two dominant political parties bases much of its electoral strategy on voter suppression initiatives -- an effort aided and abetted by the recent SCOTUS decision gutting the Voting Rights Act. (cont. above)

Jim from Oak Park  

Posted: July 25th, 2013 8:29 AM

Amen!

Bill from Oak Park  

Posted: July 24th, 2013 3:07 PM

Is it racist to ask the WJ to follow up on the "hate crime" committed in OP during April of 2012? http://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/4-23-2012/Oak-Park-teenager-charged-with-hate-crime/

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