Thursday, May 15, 2008

America’s Disease

I was particularly upset to read the article in Tuesday’s Washington Post, Racist Incidents Give Some Obama Campaigners Pause. It seems that people campaigning for Senator Obama throughout our fair land have been experiencing some really nasty racist sentiment. They have been greeted with “raw racism and hostility”. They have been called racially derogatory names (I assume using the N word), and have “endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping” from people who are not happy that Senator Obama, a black man, is a leading candidate for the presidency. The article indicates that some Obama workers have heard statements like “"Hang that darky from a tree!" or "White people look out for white people, and black people look out for black people." This is happening in the United States of America in the twenty-first century. It does not make me feel warm and fuzzy.

Obviously, I have neither the band width nor the time to thoroughly discuss race relations in America. (Hey, I’ve got a political campaign to run.) Nor can I discuss the other “ism” that has been demonstrated in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that Post commentator Marie Coco discusses in her op-ed today Misogyny I Won’t Miss.
But, I would like to talk a bit about the strangeness of America’s obsession with the color of people’s skin. Actually, if it weren’t so tragic, it would almost seem comical. Here we are engaged in a struggle for national survival (let us not forget that there are people out there who want to destroy us), on a planet that is experiencing monumental climate change that will vastly change the quality of our lives, and we are concerned with the amount of melanin people have in their skin.

Discrimination based on pigmentation seems so strange. When driving in a rural area I sometimes notice that farms have cattle of different colors grazing in the same field. It gets me wondering whether the black cattle notice that the brown and white cattle look different, or do they just see each other’s “cattleness.” Hey, my dog doesn’t seem to notice that other canines are of different breeds. To her a dog is a dog. Yet for we humans skin color is of monumental importance. Right here in the land of the free and the home of the brave we kept millions of people in slavery for two and a half centuries based on the fact that their skin was darker than those of us whose ancestors came from Europe. For another hundred years our “white” majority maintained a system of separation and discrimination, again based on skin color. How strange!

The inanity of our color bias was amply demonstrated by the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” televised back in 1969. The Enterprise discovers and takes on board Lokai, a political refugee from the planet Cheron. Lokai is a humanoid, but his body is half white and half black. Later, Bele, also from the planet Cheron and also half black and half white comes on board the Enterprise. He has been chasing Lokai across the galaxy for about 50,000 years. As the story develops we learn that on Cheron one group of black and white humanoids is fighting another group of black and white humanoids. When Captain Kirk makes the mistake of indicating to Bele that he and Lokai look the same to him Bele points out, "Isn't it obvious? Lokai is white on the right side. All his people are white on the right side." Eventually, the Enterprise goes to the planet Cheron to discover that all its residents have been destroyed in a war between the white-on-the-rights and the black-on-the-rights. Lokai and Bele are the only survivors of their planet. Rather than learning a lesson from the genocidal war that has destroyed their world, Lokai and Bele teleport down to Cheron to continue the battle.

Dark skin – light skin, does it really matter? Regardless of what the cattle or my dog notices, we humans do notice a person’s pigmentation when we first meet them. I know that when I encounter a person I cannot help but notice both their gender and the color of their skin. Is this something that is genetically programmed in us? I have watched this phenomenon in my four-year old granddaughter. She notices that some people have darker skins than she does. But, I’m not sure it is particularly important to her. She likes dolls and, once while shopping at Target, she informed us that she wanted a brown doll. She doesn’t seem to treat her brown doll any differently than her other dolls. So maybe pigmentation discrimination is not something we are born with. As Oscar Hammerstein pointed out so eloquently in South Pacific,

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear—
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade—
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate—
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

The United States has probably the most racially conscious society in the world. Our governments even require us to identify ourselves by our race. I’m not exactly sure why the federal or Commonwealth government has a right to know whether you and I are white or black or American Indian or Asian or Hispanic, but they are always asking. I don’t cooperate with such labeling. When I fill out a government form that asks me to pigeonhole myself, I always check the “other” box and write in the word “American.” It’s a very small step of civil disobedience but I think it’s necessary.

Well, dear reader, I don’t really know where to take this missive. Having reached my political awareness in the 1960s, I have always been inspired by the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., that some day his children would be judged by the strength of their character not the color of their skin. Unfortunately, Dr. King’s dream remains unfulfilled. I think that there are too many people in our country who have too much invested in pigmentation consciousness to ever let it go. For some black people and some white people there must be a level of comfort in maintaining a society in which skin color really does matter. I hope that I live long enough to see Dr. King’s dream of a color-blind America fulfilled. But, I doubt it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember that Star Trek episode, lol!!

I grew up in a rural area. The epithets that you commented on were alive and well when I was younger.

I think it's a bit more under the covers now, but that sort of belief system is still very much around...