Sunday, August 30, 2009

Am I A Racist?

How do you answer that question?

Have been thinking a lot about it since the explosion of stories about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at his home in Cambridge on July 16.

So, here's my personal data.

I grew up in Massachusetts, spent my early years in politics there, a volatile combination for developing an acute sense of ethnic, racial, and tribal identities.

My hometown, Brookline, was roughly half Jewish, a quarter Catholic (overwhelmingly Irish, some Italian), and a quarter White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (aka WASPS). I can remember well as a very young child driving with my parents in the town at night during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas and noticing "who was" and "who wasn't" by whether there was a lighted Christmas tree in the living room window. I can remember sitting with my father watching football games on tv and, as players were, being introduced asking each other whether this one or that one "might be Jewish."

I never knew a black person, except for Tom, who used to come once a week to clean our apartment (until my parents discovered that he had been raiding the liquor cabinet) and the janitor of the apartment building next door.

I went to Williams College where there were two blacks in my class, both much wealthier than me, and a dozen Jews out of a class of 250. (Surprise, surprise, two of the other 11 were assigned as my roommates.) On my first night at college, we had a party in our entry and in my beer-induced haze a I remember a fellow freshman from up state New York sitting down next to me and asking, "Are you really Jewish? The only Jew I hve ever met was a Canadian who came down to our town, opened a discount store and drove all the other stores out of business?" "Oh, that's intersting, I said."

In law school in the 1960s I decided not to spend my summer registering black voters in the South after my law school dean saw my name on the sign-up sheet and called me into his office to tell me that "it would be bad for my career."

In Brookline, after law school, I served as a tester, trying to rent apartments which had been refused to blacks to see if they had been turned down because of race. A close friend and I started a local foundation to provide initial loans and subsidies to assist blacks moving into town.

I voted for all the civil rights legislation that came before me when I was in the legislature and before that was a key staff person in the drafting of the so-called racial imbalance law which led to forced integration of the Boston schools by busing.

I took those racsim tests online, the one that came out of Project Implicit at Harvard and another by The Institute for Interracial Harmony. The former said I had a "moderate" preference for European Americans over African Americans and the latter, a much more straightforward almost self-assessment, said I was a wonderful person who loved everyone.

I have been accused in my classrooms of being sexist. And when I worked for Governor Bill Weld and fired an underperforming employee, I was accused by her and her supporters of being racist.

I am as racially and ethnically conscious a person as anyopne I know.

Am I a racist?

Are you?


Scott said...

I understand fully when you are considered a racist because you make decisions based on the facts and merits of the situation. If I happen to hire someone from my ethnic background, do people think it was intentional? You raise an intresting point in the pos-Professor Gates episode. If Professow Gates was white, would there have been any publiuc outcry or beers at the White House?

Mary Rowe said...

Marty. Surely we are all racist. We're been raised in a culture that privileges white men (alas, you are one of them) and women (moi ici) and even with the best of intentions and effort I think racism is ingrained in each of us and the structures and systems that surround us.Each of us may have something that contributes to our own exclusion, so we can maybe produce some empathy, but I think the race piece is tougher to reconcile yet alone eliminate. And no amount of good intention or commitment to doing-the-best-we-can is enough. Don't you think the Gates episode was about power? But the fact that I can only remember his name, and not the name of the cop: that's about racism. Mine. (I could also blame menopause--- but with or without estrogen, I'm racist). And I guess I want to ask you why you heeded your Dean's concern? How do you understand the choice you made there then?

Marty Linsky said...

lots of interesting feedback, here and in e-mails. Most compelling in a way was from Reuben Eckels from Wichita. He said it is sad when privileged whites like me are more upset about being called racists than they are about disaprtieis ineducation and health. He's got it right: that's racism!

Marty Linsky said...

And, as for Mary's question. I was young, naive, unsure of myself, and trusting in authority. And in retrospect am mortified by my decision. Now I am older, less naive, still unsure of myself, and VERY skeptical of authority.

Tom Scott said...

Marty, I was raised white american catholic in an all white LA suburb. We were raised to be intellectually tolerant of all races and creeds. Since then I have worked for 40 years with folks of all races and creeds. However, I still have a physicological response (anxiety) at the sight of any stranger who is of a visibly different race, be they black, brown, native american, middle eastern, and asian. I think there must be some genetic behavior related to tribal self-preservation that underpins some of this response. It certainly requires an intellectual battle with myself to shut down that response.

Jeffrey Katz said...

Perhaps what truly divides us is the continual attention we pay toward that which superficially makes us “different” – along with the underlying presumption that this outward difference automatically means there is an underlying agenda to either preserve or undermine one classification’s historic level of privilege over another’s. At some point, we are going to need to stop classifying people by singular attributes and begin realizing that we have more in common than we do at odds. As a society we appear to be fixated on becoming independent of one another, declaring ourselves as proud, “(fill in your classification here) Americans.” Yet, as long as groups of people fight for independence from one another, we will never achieve the critical interdependence necessary to move beyond that which seems to keep dividing us, to a state in which we are able to flourish through our subtle differences instead of bickering over them.

Teleos1 said...

Here is the thing Marty. You talk about your experience as a youth with a few black people, but what I did not read was about a real relationship or connection with someone black or African American. It is in the relationships that we can learn about our level of racial bigotry. I argue racism is a systemic problem and until one deals with it on that level, all of this talk is irelevent. We are all racial bigots, but there are variations to this bigotry. When I read the comments by your friends, colleagues or followers, I actually chuckle because NONE of them speak about having a meaningful relationship with an African American. There is certainly something genetic about survival and preservation, but it is white supremacy that wants to preserve whites at the top of the food chain. The fear is a possible outgrowth of this. One of your posters needs to really call this out in him; not chalk it up to something "genetic." The fact is the Professor Gates episode is a sad failure because it was all about "Getting past the moment," and NOT addressing the experience. Prof. Gates showed me a lot about who he is. It will be a money making moment for he and Sgt. Crowley. Gates may have another book that intellectual liberals and certain members of the Black Intelligentsia will support, but Gates does not reflect any real experience an average black man goes through. I am very unimpressed by Prof. Gates on this issue. This incident also showed me as much as I really love my President; he will not get into a real discussion about racism - he has experienced the health care situation and the vile responses towards him i.e. depicting him as a monkey, a non-human, or Hitler (which is very befuddling to me) sends a message to him NOT to talk about the one issue that divides us all racism.

Obama suffers from White Ambivalence right now; and is struggling to find a way to get things back on track.

Again, I will challenge all of the posters on this blog - talk to me about a real relationship you have with someone black. Not just a colleague or someone you had dinner with a few times.

Teleos1 said...

Scott said, "If Prof. Gates was white, would there haveen any public outcry or beers at the White House?" What do you think? It is a rhetorical question. Beers came because of Obama's real emotional response - he slipped - got too black and told how he really felt about the situation? It had to be cleaned up. Racial profiling usually not a thing white people experience. However, in this Gates situation; at the end of the day I question whether this was a complete case of racial profiling; particularly after hearing the 911 tape and then seeing the press conference by the woman who made the report. There is an unsaid tension that most exists between black and white men when a conflict or uncomfortable situation surfaces and it is peppered with racial undertones that can become covert. By the way, I don't understand how anyone could be called a racist if they are truly basing their decision to fire someone on the facts of a situation accompanied with the use of discretion. I appreciate the comments, but I had to write something else. Thank you for reading this.

Mary Rowe said...

OK now we're talking. I agree wholeheartedly with Teleos1 about the disconnect between what white liberals like me espouse and the reality of our social worlds. That is so right. When Sam and I got married (late in life) I was startled by the pictures: very few guests were people of colour, and we lived in Toronto, one of the most diverse cities in the world! This bothered me, I was shocked, that although I had many colleagues who were people of colour, they weren't at our wedding. We live in New Orleans now, and I can say for sure that were we to wed tomorrow there would be African Americans there because we've befriended many here. But your comment is critical: when so many of our friends and social patterns are established early, and our environments were either mono-cultural or segregated then, how do we now as middle-agers proactively address this? I wonder if this is so true for our children, raised in more diverse environments? But you've hit the nail on the head, and I wonder about where the mediating institutions are in our cultures now that bring us into proximity with 'the other'? That's why we need laws to ensure these rights (even when 'some of our best friends are .....', because racism is everywhere.

Jeffrey Katz said...

“When I read the comments by your friends, colleagues or followers, I actually chuckle because NONE of them speak about having a meaningful relationship with an African American.”

I chuckle too my friend, and here is why. Your statement gives rise and legitimacy to my point. Would you feel more comfortable if I claim to have, “many black friends?” How cliché. I have many friends, who represent a wide variety of “classifications.”

I have friends who are tall, short, black, Asian, homosexual, straight … I have friends who are high school drop outs and friends who have advanced degrees from Harvard and Yale. I have friends with crooked teeth, friends with big ears – friends who have hairy characteristics and those who wish they had more hair. I am friends with Christians, Jews, and agnostics alike – even a few Universal Unitarians. I have one friend who is a Wiccan. Boo! Some of my friends are unemployed; some are making six-figures a year. I have friends who are baby-boomers, Gen X’ers, and Gen-Y’ers. These people have been frequent guests in my home and my daughter even refers to many of these friends as “aunt” or “uncle” so-and-so…

Why is it that the relationships with people of different races seem to be the perpetual topics of conflict in this country? It is as if we marginalize people by seeing them in one-dimension; the color of their skin. There are so many other significant dimensions to one’s life experience irrespective of race and yet well intentioned individuals keep beating the drum that we must move toward racial equality by focusing on differences in race. Try not to think of the color red. Woops. Let’s try it again… darn it! How come each time we try not to think of the color red, it keeps popping in our head? Racial discrimination is representative of the same phenomenon. The more we fight to end racial discrimination, the more are faced with the prospect of paying greater attention to race itself.

Would you like to know about my “relationships” with blacks? Well, you can keep wondering because I won’t exploit the meaningful relationships in my life to make a point. No one in my life who I love, yes even the black ones, are in my inner-circle for tactical purposes. I chose not to exploit these relationships as a means to add legitimacy to my assertions…any more than I chose to exploit the relationships I have with any other “classifications” of people. That’s kind of my point. We are ALL different... and in so many ways. Continued emphasis on a singular dimension of someone’s physical being or life experience represents a narrowly focused argument which will never be resolved. Primarily because this argument is predicated on our stereotypes and not in reality.

Teleos1 said...

Jeff, it is great a "nerve" has been touched because now a real discussion can perhaps be had about racism. Your post is very interesting and moves towards the point I am driving at, but not far enough. Marty wrote about someone being a "racist," and then raises the question to his readers.

To run from the issue by saying that there is too much emphasis on race or skin color is still doing great damage to the problem that is endemic to the society in which we live and breathe. Actually, if you notice I try not to mention the word "race" because from a DNA standpoint there is no difference between human beings and that takes us away from the discussion. "Conversations on Race" are silly.

For you to say that it is exploitation to talk about racism in the context of relationships you may have again runs away from the point and it is a easy to say it is a exploitation. I think and perhaps I am wrong if you have read Marty's books, he talks a great deal about relationships; they are a cornerstone to many of the issues he discusses. With this issue, it also applies. I am a friend of Marty and consider him a mentor as well. So blame him for teaching me how raise the heat in the room. I do understand and know how deep he sees how relationships play a role in discussing important issues such as this as well. The bottom line is your defensive position to prove all who you know was not my point at all. Although, I will admit it was quite forward.

I am hoping that most of us have friends from all backgrounds including Wiccan - Boo back (I had a photographer in my company who was one, but she died in a tragic car crash several years ago) -

You write, "Why is it that the relationships with people of different races seem to be the perpetual topics of conflict in this country? It is as if we marginalize people by seeing them in one-dimension; the color of their skin."

Firstly, people of different races in this country have conflicts over racism and racial bigotry. That is a reality even if you or I wish it was not that way. However, individuals don't have to allow it. It appears you and I may works towards this.

Secondly, I so agree with you that seeing people on the basis of skin color is so one dimensional, but guess what? It happens all of the time. Hence what we see what is happening today in the media.

You have clearly missed my point; particularly when I begin to raise the issue from a systemic perspective. It is actually way to "dangerous" for a leader to want to address a systemic problem; so as Mary Rowe pointed out we have laws that are put in place to try and at least address the issue while the system remains the same.

Ian Mayo Smith said...

Very interesting discussion. I am surprised no one has mentioned being a "recovering racist." I am one myself, having been brought up to be bigoted in everyway - snobbish, sexist, classist, racist - you name it. But the interesting life I have lived forced me to understand what I was. I am always aware of the prejudices I have. They are always there at the back of my mind, some of them very far back now. It is like being a recovering alcoholic.

What matters are the actions one takes. For a recovering alcoholic it means refraining from taking that drink. For a recovering racist it means not letting one's actions being determined by the prejudices.

I know that racist and other prejudices can creep up on me when I am not looking. That will be so until the day I die, just as a recovering alcoholic can never be free from that desire for a drink.
But so long as I am vigilant and recognise my prejudices for what they are when they arise, I can live my life without acting on them, and I can enjoy the company and friendship with people very different from myself, including Jews, Muslims, black people, Asian people, blue collar people, even right wing people, etc.,etc. Thus I have been married for 36 years to an Indian Hindu woman, I have Jewish grandchildren, an Africa American sister (who you will meet soon), a Lesbian god daughter. You know the mix of friends I have who have enriched my life.

So much for the way racism affects us as individuals, but as some of the other bloggers have pointed out, racism, particularly anti-black and now anti-Muslim (=anti Arab) racism are systemic, and that has got to be tackled. But how? That's the really difficult question. Martin Luther King tackled it head on, so did Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. Fighting systemic racism does call for changes in the laws, and a significant amount of this have been achieved, but it also requires many other changes.

Sometimes changes in behavior lead to changes in attitudes, not just the other way round. The churches are one place that it could start. There should be no all-white or all-black churches. But this is just one of many areas where the chnges need to happen. America has come a long way. We did after all elect Barrack Obama in a country-wide popular vote. So there is hope. The Berlin Wall, of racism will come down.


Ian Browde said...

Just to add layer of complexity to an important discussion that you, Marty, have helped us to have out in the open, I submit that we can be group rascists (or bigots)and individually tolerant.
So, I find that in a one to one relationship and interaction there is no race or group that I have encountered where I have not found individuals that I can, and do, relate to.
On the other hand there is no group, including my own, that does not possess and display characteristics that I deplore and am prejudiced against.
All that said, I am also fully aware that most of what I despise in others is actually that which I dislike in myself.
So maybe at the end of the day all we are talking about is how self aware we are; each and every one of us.

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