Tuesday, March 31, 2015

White Man's Shame

Driving into work this morning, I heard Michel Martin's piece on how black men in the US experience the social fact that many of those around them fear them.  To the point that one panelist noted how he walks the street whistling tunes from Frozen to clearly show how nonthreatening he is. On its own, the discussion provided more sad commentary on the continuing racism that pervades American culture. It also jostled my own memories, bringing up personal episodes I'm quite ashamed of.

For instance, about a year ago, I was walking--in the middle of the day mind you--to a post office near my workplace.  There weren't many pedestrians out, but a single black man was standing in my path on the sidewalk.  Just standing, not blocking my path or paying me any attention.  I walked right on by, but my pulse quickened and I'm sure the beginnings of little beads of sweat formed.  Of course, I made it to the post office without any actual problems.

My reaction, though, goes to show that the men Michel Martin was speaking with were right. I, the white man, benefit from a long history of racial privilege and exclusion, while the black man I passed on the sidewalk has inherited the very bad end of that same deal.  So, the really awful irony is obvious that I feared him.

I hate that I reacted that way.  It's an an unfair and immoral response.  Further, I should know better, and I do know better.  I've got a Ph.D. in anthropology for god's sake.  I'm currently writing a companion piece for my class discussions on race in the US and how it's transformed, but remained an ideological move to enshrine privilege for some at the devastating expense for many.  From Bacon's Rebellion, slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynching, New Deal's Social Security exclusions, FHA discriminatory mortgage insuring, suburbanization, white flight to contemporary examples like the sociological experiments (and here) that show clear discrimination in the labor market, I am quite aware of the pernicious and insidious role of race American history and present. 
Despite that, racism remains a key part of  the American cultural fabric.  So deep, that even someone like me--who really does know better, has deeply racist gut reactions built into my social self.  If experienced racist fear, I can only imagine how members--who don't have the understanding the racist contours of American history and society--of my extended family react.

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