Those of us who dabble in the occasional do-it-yourself project eventually learn a few ‘rules of the road’, so to speak. We know that you should always “Measure twice, cut once” and “If it can’t be fixed with duct tape, you’re not using enough duct tape”. And then there’s the one about the old man who explained to his grandson why he had so many tools: “If the women don’t find you handsome, they’ll at least find you handy”.
The key to a job well done is having the right tools and knowing how to use them. To build my column, my tools are my words. It makes sense to know which ones are right for the task. For this one, the important words are not pleasant but are certainly getting a lot of work these days.
Here’s where things get ugly
First, let’s flip through the pages of our handy dictionary and get a clear sense of the differences of three key terms: bigotry, prejudice, and racism. Now, each of these words can be used to attack based on a person’s words, thoughts, or actions. It isn’t my intention to single out anyone here, but to get a better sense of how we can define and understand the world we live in.
According to Merriam-Webster, bigotry is ‘obstinate or intolerant devotion to one’s own opinions and prejudices’. Words like narrow-minded or intolerant come to mind. People with a “my way or the highway” attitude could easily be described as a bigot, but general usage of the term seems to be much more harsh.
Prejudice is ‘preconceived judgment or opinion; an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge’. To me, that sounds like what you get with the previously mentioned bigot who makes up his mind without bothering to check his facts.
And then there’s the big word that is bouncing around in many current events discussions these days: racism. The language experts describe it as ‘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’. That’s some serious heavy lifting in a single sentence, so let’s see if we can expand on that a bit.
Truth isn’t always comfortable
In his book “Portraits of White Racism”, David Wellman defined racism as a “system of advantage based on race”. He went on to explain, “Race is still a deadly serious category in America; how one is designated racially profoundly affects the experience of being an American.” That is, how society – and especially, how government – defines you is a primary force in determining how much of your inalienable rights are available for you to enjoy.
Paula Rothenberg, in her study “Race, Class, and Gender in the United States”, writes: “Racial prejudice when combined with social power… leads to the institutionalization of racist policies and practices.” In other words, if you choose leaders who have strong personal opinions about people of different ethnic backgrounds and they use their position of power to negatively affect the lives of others, you are contributing to a society fueled by racism.
In 1970, Patricia Bidol-Padva wrote that racism is “prejudice plus power”. It’s important to understand that power can be as simple as holding enough influence to affect the outcome of someone else’s actions. Examples would include making hiring decisions or approving a home loan. The greater the power, the more opportunity to derail the lives of others.
Our legal system has a mottled history with race; one only has to consider the Jim Crow laws of the not-too-distant past to see how our courts have been unfairly used to disadvantage non-whites. While it’s tempting to say that things are better now, a recent study by the Brennan Center finds that 24 states right now don’t have a single person of color serving as a Supreme Court justice, hardly a true reflection of our nation’s population. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we need a mandatory quota system to force diversification. But if our courts are that much out of touch with reality, can we be assured that those justices are as impartial as we expect them to be?
A matter of choice
Each and every one of us can decide: be driven by feelings of superiority over others who look different, or be accepting of all in spite of those differences. No one is born with hatred, but humans are fast learners. I once sat at a baseball stadium and overheard a young – and clearly drunk – white man shouting his disgust over an African-American umpire’s call of a close play. Turning to one of his buddies, the guy proclaimed, “And that’s why I don’t like black people.” While I’m confident that this belligerent fan isn’t currently serving in office, recent elections have taught us that anything is possible.
Let me be very clear: a racist can be any color, from any ethnic background, and have any religious belief (or none at all). No particular demographic has exclusive rights to racist thoughts or behaviors. So if I’m pointing fingers here, rest assured. I’m not placing all the blame on one group over another. Systematic hatred of others based on their looks is not limited to one race, and one newspaper column isn’t going to give sufficient space to explain all the reasons for that hatred.
As a Caucasian male of European descent, I only know what it’s like within my own skin. But I also know that I wasn’t raised to think that I was better than those with different skin tones. And I’m not about to stand in silence while the privileged few try to turn this nation back into a land of oppression.
You see, whether it’s our government using authoritarian means to suppress the rights and privileges of large segments of our population… or it’s the ‘dog-whistle’ catchphrases that pepper the public comments by America’s most prominent political voices…we are seeing prejudice plus power in action. And that, my friends, is racism amplified to the highest volume.
(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald August 1, 2019.)