Friday, September 3, 2010

Pride and Prejudice

The media seems to have been in a tizzy lately touting that we are in a “post racial” America since the election of the first “black” president in Barack Obama (even though Bill Clinton tried to lay claim to that honor based on his slightly colorful ancestry). While I do not disagree that American has made great progress in overcoming its discriminatory past since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, I still have to question the accuracy of the assertion that we are in a “post racial” culture for a couple of reasons not the least of which are my own beliefs, thoughts and expectations.

First, let me tattle on myself. When you make your living dealing with people primarily over the phone, you tend to develop mental pictures of what the folks on the other end of the line look like based on the tone of their voice and the way they speak. Sometimes those mental pictures are basically accurate. Sometimes not.

For example, I attended a mediation on Wednesday in Houston. This was my first opportunity to meet my insured’s representative, as well as the plaintiff, in person. I had spoken with my insured’s representative on the phone a couple of times and had, as most of us do, formed a mental picture of him. When I met him Wednesday, for the first time, at mediation, his appearance conformed in basic details to my mental picture. Mid 40s, athletic, educated male with pale skin. In other words…someone more or less like me.

As tends to happen at mediations, after the basic details of the case have been hammered into the ground, conversation tends to switch over to cover a wide range of subjects from small talk to sports to politics. My insured’s representative mentioned at one point in the conversation that he was recently divorced.

The case we were mediating involved a business dispute in which the plaintiff, who started the business my company insured, claimed that he was wrongfully removed from his position as president and CEO by the other shareholders. This is a family owned business. So, the other shareholders were related to the plaintiff by blood and marriage. The insured representative attending mediation was one of the other shareholders as was the plaintiff’s brother. The plaintiff’s brother also happened to be the insured representative’s now former father in law.

Here is where I have to tell on myself and admit that I was completely surprised by the fact that the plaintiff/insured rep’s former uncle in law was a tall, 350+ pound man with skin the color of Hershey’s Milk Chocolate. I wasn’t expecting that.

50 years after Sammy Davis, Jr. married a woman with skin paler than his, 47 years after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, 43 years after movie goers were shown a “mixed” couple in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, 35 years after The Jeffersons showed America’s TV viewing audience an interracial couple (Tom & Helen) on a prime time sitcom, me growing up never having seen any direct indications of societal discrimination, etc., etc. and my mind’s eye still puts two and two together and assumes that a pale skinned guy is going to marry a pale skinned girl. And I have to ask myself why I was surprised by that unexpected development and why it matters or if it matters at all.

It’s not like I was raised by white supremacists or anything…with the possible exception of my maternal grandfather. I have my suspicions about him. Well, they’re not so much suspicions as they are well founded conclusions supported by significant circumstantial evidence. One of these days, I know I’m going to come across an old photo of a Klan rally from the 1950s and see his goofy lookin’ mug poking out of a white robe next to a burning cross. But, I digress.

I was born in 1970 to a middle class family living in a suburb of Dallas. I did not suffer the injustices of racial prejudice growing up. I have no direct memory of the struggle some people went through to fight for Civil Rights. I never had to drink from a color coded water fountain. I never had to be in a color coded school or be bussed to a school across town so that there was greater integration of “minorities” into the student population to satisfy some judge’s court order. I’ve never (to my knowledge) been discriminated against because of the color of my skin.

So, why should I give a flying flip about racial prejudice in the first place? That’s going to take some explaining. I’ll do my best. Here goes.

According to the Declaration of Independence, America’s founding fathers stated that “We hold these truths to be self evidence, that all men are created equal,…” For the moment, I want to set aside the obvious argument that slavery was alive and well at the time that sentence was written leading to the inevitable conclusion that some men were more equal than others. We’ll try to come back to that later.

Scientifically speaking, race is a meaningless term. You are either a member of a given species or you are not. If you were born from a set of parents who are of the same species and you share the same certain number of chromosomes as your parents and are capable of reproducing and giving birth to fertile offspring, you are generally considered to be a member of the same species as your parents. Individuals do not magically mutate into a new species. Evolution doesn’t work that way. Seems pretty straightforward so far, right?

Now, let’s try an analogy for a moment. Take the humble crocodile for a moment. Ugly as sin and just about as hospitable as an IRS agent with bad gas. You know what they look like. Green-ish, scaly, bad breath, sharp teeth, etc (I’m talking about the crocs…not the IRS agents). But, they mate and produce other little crocodiles (not IRS agents). However, every once in a while, there is an aberration in the genetic code resulting in an almost cute little bugger known as an albino crocodile. Instead of being green-ish, albinos are mostly white. To my knowledge, no one considers an albino croc to be of a different species than its green-ish parents.

Anthropologically speaking, race is still meaningless. Culture and language are what matter. Even though you’d be hard pressed to differentiate between a pale skinned American and a pale skinned European at a glance, there is a significant difference between the two culturally and linguistically.

What about the Bible? America’s founding fathers seem to be making a thinly veiled reference to God in the Declaration of Independence with the “created equal” bit. The book of Genesis says that God created Adam and Eve in HIS image. It doesn’t say whether they were pale skinned, dark skinned or purple. There is no indication anywhere in the Bible that someone of one skin color is superior or inferior to another.

Once you pull off the outer layer of skin, we are all pretty much look the same when you get right down to it (setting aside the obvious differences between genders). So, why do humans persist in thinking that skin color (or religion, or sexual orientation, or national origin, etc.) makes any difference at all when it comes to our species? If a human is a human is a human, why do we perpetuate prejudice in all its forms (including affirmative action, quotas, little check boxes for ethnicity on applications and forms, etc.) through the use of something as scientifically meaningless as “race”?

In my opinion, it is because of the US vs. THEM mentality. We, as humans, want to take care of those close to us. Our family. Our friends. Those people who are like US. Not those crazy people in the other trailer park. Not those…eeekkk…northerners. Not….THEM.

Blood is thicker than water as the old saying goes.

Perhaps that is why European monarchies inbred so much as a means of diplomacy. Oh no, we can’t invade England. That’s Uncle Buckie’s family. How about France? No, no. That won’t do. Aunt Marie would have a fit. Hey, we don’t have no kin in Israel. Let’s go kick some butt down there and call it a crusade to reclaim the holy land or some such.

Perhaps that is also why slaves in almost every culture were “not from around here.” Need a cheap source of labor and you can’t use your own kids (…they may be lazy but they’re family). Hey, how about the neighbor kids? No, that won’t work. Their folks will want us to pay them the going rate plus extra benefits. Here’s an idea, let’s purchase some of them funny lookin' fellers from that other country over t’ yonder and….

You get the idea.

We’re not living in a “post racial world”. If anything, we are still living in the age of racism. Our society and our culture remain obsessed with “race”.

Black or White? Caucasian or Hispanic? In a truly post racial world, these terms have no meaning.

If we were living in a post racial world, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson would not have a national audience.

If we were living in a post racial world, it would be possible for a “white” person to criticize the “black” President without being labeled a racist.

If we were living in a post racial world, groups like the KKK or the NAACP would no longer exist as they would no longer serve any purpose.

If we were living in a post racial world, companies like the one I work for would not need to provide “Diversity and Inclusion” training to avoid discrimination lawsuits.

If we were truly living in a post racial world, I would not have been surprised at a “mixed race” couple.

Does it matter? I think it does.

We are all the same. We are all humans. God does not see white people and black people. He sees only people that He made in His image. His creations which He really did make equal, and He loves them all equally.

We are all the same. We share the same planet. Our communications, our travels and our economies are global and almost instantaneous in nature. What happens over there has effects over here.

So, what do we do? For starters, stop.

Stop and think about how you think about yourself. How you think about others. How do you describe yourself or someone else to others? Have you ever really seen someone with white or black skin? I haven’t. How about we try for a little greater accuracy in how we describe physical attributes? To use The Queen’s favorite phrase…”Use Your Words.”

Stop asking for or providing meaningless and irrelevant information. A person’s skin color or ancestry has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not they are fit to obtain a loan or capable of performing a job.

Stop supporting organizations that perpetuate “racism” through membership criteria or ideology.

Stop asking me to feel guilty for something in which I never participated.

Stop using something that never happened to you as an excuse for failing to achieve.

Stop assuming that he or she is just like THEM and see if they might be like you.

If you believe what The Bible teaches, we are all related at one point or another.

Which means that there really is no THEM. There is only US.


  1. K

    Great post, I want to read it again (probably a couple of times) but will address one point - your surprise at the mixed couple.

    Ever see a crocodile? I haven't personally because human/croc interactions are rare.

    I've definitely never ran into an albino croc -- so not only would I be surprised at running into a croc, it would very uncommon to run into albino.

    Even in these modern times, interracial couples are rare. Some of it is the us v. them, some of it is location issue, some of it is simply family/friend pressure to conform.

    Now, since the odds of encountering an interracial couple are small, it is no wonder your mind didn't consider the possibility.

    The main problem is the subtle difference between racial and racist in perception.

    Did you consider the situation to be unacceptable or an affront to society? Probably not.

    Did you find fault with the other people or did you find fault with yourself?

    I see you confronting a gap in your perceptual framework and having to re-adjust based on racial issues, not racist issues.

    While not everyone conforms to 'racial' stereotypes, there is enough truth in them to affect communication, ideology, views on legal issues, etc.

    Sorry to take so much space but this is a great post on how we are often harder on ourselves concerning this issue then others are.

  2. Bob, I'm glad you thought highly of the post; and, more importantly, I'm glad you got the main point.

    I have seen crocs in a zoo/aquarium. Matter of fact, they have an albino croc at the Cabela's in Fort Worth if memory serves right. I get your point about interracial couples still being rare though. I guess my thought was that I've known several, and I should be "over" it.

    You're right that I do not consider it an affront or unacceptable. Which is probably why I am so surprised at my own surprise. So, in essence, yes, I am finding fault with myself.

  3. VERY nice post, it's made me think.

    I have experienced racism directed at me, in Hawaii. Ask me sometime about a bus ride I took...or the time my husband and I weren't served in a local restaurant, and had to get up and leave without eating. It's a strange world we live in. I raised my kids to be not color-BLIND, but color-INDIFFERENT. When my twins started kindergarten, they described their friends to me as "beige, umber, tan..." Names of crayola crayon colors, among other things. When I asked them what color THEY were, Tally looked down at her arm and said, somewhat dubiously, "Peach?" :)

  4. Christina, thanks. I really like the color indifferent description. That sums up my main point in two words. Skin color is just a means of describing someone's appearance, not a basis for value judgments or identity.

  5. K: Excellent post and great follow-up comments! I tell people that my heritage is Hispanic, but I am 100% American. Once we deemphasize race, and judge others not on "the color of their skin but by the content of their character," we will have truly become post-racial. (Where have we I heard that before?)

    Christina, I love your comment about being color-indifferent. I think there is beauty in NOT being color-blind. It's one thing to pretend to not see color, but it's an altogether different thing to acknowledge racial differences, and yet be indifferent to them.

    Bob: you make a great point. My experience is a bit different, because in the circles I frequent, true bi-racial couples are relatively common. I say "true bi-racial couples" because, to complicate matters, I have many dark-skinned Hispanic friends who have married light-skinned Hispanics. To those who may not know them, they're bi-racial. To those who do know them, they have the same race, culture, etc...

    As I said at the beginning, great post and great discussion.

  6. Lawyer, thanks for the kind words, and welcome to the congregation.

    I like it that you identify yourself as American instead of by your ethnic heritage. It tickles me sometimes to meet people who strongly identify with an ethnic heritage that they have never had contact with and wouldn't understand if it bit them on the butt.

    You are also correct that a lot of folks don't realize that many Hispanics are truly "bi-racial" (although I would prefer the term bi-cultural). The Spanish conquestedors intermingled with the native Aztec (and pretty much any other natives they came near), and the "mestizo" people were the result.


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