Race Still Haunts How We Perceive Each Other by Thomas Martin Sobottke


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Tho’ de slave question am settled, de race question will be wid us always, ‘till Jesus come de second time. It’s in our politics, in our justice courts, on our highways, on our side walks, in our manners, in our ‘ligion, and in our thoughts, all de day and every day.

-Cornelius Holmes, Winnsboro, S.C., Former Slave and a Free Man

It is “they” we have to watch out for. Or maybe it is “illegals” as if those people are illegitimate de-humanized beings. The battle might involve “them” just like the 1950’s Sci Fi film that is now a classic. Or it might be the images and stereotypes conjured up by Native-Americans when we use the term “Indians” rather than indicate American or the tribal nation they belong to as a sovereign entity in direct relationship with the United States, another nation. Even when we use the term “cracker” it indicates an “us and them” relationship.

Whatever we call ourselves in relation to others the subject of Race is a huge elephant in the room that always dogs Americans of all colors and backgrounds.

Someone very close to me during a routine phone call said to me concerning African-Americans: “They’re all a bunch of drug dealers, dope addicts and criminals and murderers you know.”

I pointed out that most American blacks are none of those things. And I could have pointed out that factually just as many white people use drugs and sell them too but that enforcement in what are predominantly segregated communities is vastly unequal. Drug War enforcement is much more vigilant and supported by our tax dollars in minority communities and so it is five times more likely that blacks and Latinos will be arrested for drug violations than white Americans.

The racialized profiling engaged in by George Zimmerman is now legendary due to the just recently concluded court case.

White friends of mine are now pointing out to me how two black men in the very same County of Sanford, Florida have killed a fifty-year-old white man by beating him with a hammer or tire iron. Numerous other horrendous crimes done by people of color are put before me.

My friends perceive a racial inequality in our lack of outrage over these minority crimes on whites and lack of media attention to them as compared with the Trayvon Martin case.

What they miss entirely is the fact that all kinds of people commit horrible crimes upon others all the time. They are pursued and arrested as soon as taken into custody and then tried in our criminal courts. But in the Trayvon Martin case somebody assumed criminality on the part of a black youth merely because he was present in his neighborhood. It took a national outcry, a Department of Justice investigation, and a month and a half to get the obvious perpetrator in Trayvon Martin’s death arrested.

Even though George Zimmerman was acquitted, there was no question he killed Martin and that there was more than enough evidence to immediately arrest and charge him with Manslaughter if not Second Degree Murder.

That is the big difference between all these routine cases of criminality and the Trayvon Martin case.

The black and Latino men paraded before me by friends who mean well but do not see their racist perceptions hanging out do not understand that these minority offenders are energetically pursued and immediately booked and charged. They will face trial—it is not a question for months and anything outrageous in the Trayvon Martin sense.

Mere minority criminality does not exist in full equality or similarity with the treatment of George Zimmerman. Zimmerman though he is half Hispanic is perceived as white by white conservative America and so he is part of the “one of us.” Black defendants are able to successfully claim Stand Your Ground defenses 3% of the time as compared with 35% of white defendants in the 22 Stand Your Ground States. While the law was not central to the Martin case, it was a part of the generous allowance for self-defense in cases where the defendant is white and the victim is black.

We hear that the “Takers” threaten to undermine the “Makers” and will ruin our entire economic system and destroy our democracy. But the Makers and the Takers are code for wealthy white people with jobs and both whites and minority people who must use unemployment insurance, food stamps or welfare. Even entitlements like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are part of what divides America.

In the State of Ohio for example, 61% of Food Stamp recipients are white. Nationally, 62.5% of Americans are white and across the nation most people who use the social safety net are white though blacks do use the programs disproportionately to their overall numbers. While true, blacks disproportionately live in deep poverty and struggle to survive. Laziness and indolence has little to do with it. Race and our misperceptions has everything to do with it.

Our image of the Takers is distinctly linked to the image of the supposed lazy and indolent unemployed people of all races and with a disproportionate emphasis on black use of these portions of the social safety net. That is a racist perception of others pure and simple. We don’t use the N word at people who are black much these days. That is said to prove that we live in a “post racial” America. But we have shifted the language to all sorts of code words and dog whistles that tell other members of the dominant group they mean “Nigger,” “Wetback,” “Red Man,” or “Chinaman” but can no longer safely say so in polite society.

The perception that poor whites, and minority people who use the social safety net as lazy, indolent, and undeserving of help is where racism has gone to hide from us—at least those of us who are in denial about race; that most often are the people least adversely affected by it—the still dominant white majority. That is a fact of life.

The discomfort whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, Muslims, Native-Americans and the rest feel with each other is part and parcel to racism in our society and we must confront that. It ought to have been confronted long ago—on the heels of Civil Rights laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the heyday of Dr. King’s non-violent means of protest. But we did not.

Even the white heritage movement as encapsulated in Neo-Confederate groups are places where racism has gone underground—just beneath the surface but just as deadly.

Equating Native-Americans with being only good for getting drunk on whiskey and pounding on drums feeds into racial stereotypes that are powerful and at the same time racially discriminatory in the extreme. In point of fact, Native-Americans no longer parade around in buckskins carrying tomahawks and wearing war paint. They now occasionally wear ceremonial dress, and otherwise take their rightful place as full fledge American citizens alongside everyone else. I actually did have someone make a comment to one of our Struggles for Justice editorial pieces where these stereotypes were directly employed. That was in the Twenty-first century and not in the Nineteenth.

Equating people of Middle Eastern extraction who are Muslims by faith with Terrorists amounts to the same racist perception of people who might be different than we are that have little basis in fact. Yes, most terror suspects are of this background but only a relative tiny few of the millions of their counterparts who live here.

Seeing people with yellow skin as dangerous, in this case due to their perceived over-active hard work and rush to be well educated to out compete white people and the inflated view of Anglo-Saxons or Celtic peoples feeds in to the same racial stereotypes. Their non-Anglo culture is seen as somehow un-American.

Latinos are most often U.S. citizens in good standing. Those people who are not and who have violated our immigration laws are rarely here for criminal purposes but simply to earn money and support themselves or their families. Their children are unusually interested in proving themselves and showing that when born here unlike their parents or when brought here at such a young age they little understood the legal ramifications of why their parents were so intent on providing for them better that they broke U.S. law rush to serve in our military or to be as American as Chevrolets, and Apple pie. They even have a name identifying themselves as “Dreamers” since they dream of full acceptance as Americans.

To call these people “illegals” de-legitimizes them so that their common humanity can be denied more easily. The image of brown people jumping fences like burglars into the United States plays to racial themes and perceptions that build on racial stereotypes and fears of the outsider or foreigner.

There is a kind of “Otherism” abroad in the land that is the direct result of the dominant white majority feeling increasingly as though they no longer will be able to maintain the unequal dominance of other races and ethnic groups and religions as they have in the past. It is like the Sci Fi movie “Them” where a strange group of alien beings threatens our lives and all we have built.

It even infects perceptions of the LGBT community though that group is not a race of people but those with a sexual orientation that in some way is not reflective of the majority of people in this nation and nothing more to it than that.

The demographic shift now underway is a major feeder of racism and ethnic and religious prejudice. It induces fear in a lot of people. Instead we must embrace the changing face of America and see to those things that bind us together—the ideals in our founding documents as a nation and our principle of equality before the law, the rule of law itself.

Historically the United States of America has conferred greater status on a person the more white their skin. It remains one of the most fundamental things embedded in our culture and society. White is the most American in our stereotypical imagery inhabiting the minds of us all. And discrimination and even outright unequal status, deep seeded injustice, and violence directed at people who have darker skin colors. That is race. And race is central to who we are and have been.

We must now finally face these misperceptions about each other and the stereotypes that permitted George Zimmerman to see an innocent kid on his way home and guilty of doing nothing wrong as a threat and a criminal requiring apprehension by the authorities with his aid and perhaps worse.

This cancer in our perceptions of race must be destroyed in the U.S. body politic and in our social relations with each other. Are we really prepared to make fully real the equal justice under the rule of law promised in our nation’s supreme laws and in the very founding principle of the United States at its founding? I submit it is an imperative that has been waiting in the wings for much too long.

Dr. Thomas Martin Sobottke
for Struggles for Justice

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