Saturday, July 20, 2013

Racism – What a Concept!

During the 2008 Democratic primaries, Senator Barack Obama gave a speech about race and racism that was so eloquent and inspiring that I felt compelled to support him over (the also very impressive) Hillary Clinton.  Yesterday, as president, he offered more words on this topic, and again he was eloquent and thought-provoking.  But it seems that not everyone responded positively to his heartfelt comments.

Racism is one of America’s most disheartening and enduring diseases, but, as President Obama pointed out, our health is steadily improving on this front.  Nevertheless, some of the reactions to the president’s words testify that racial hatred continues to fester in some quarters.  Comments on different websites include, for example, the accusation that Obama is now a “race baiter,” he has become “the Divider in Chief” and that he is “adding fuel to the flames” surrounding the George Zimmerman case.  And these, unfortunately, are among the more mild claims of commenters who suffer from racial prejudice.

Racial hatred is not a simple entity, and, frankly, it’s not one I understand thoroughly.  I know that I have relatives and acquaintances who are guilty of it to one degree or another, but I recognize that these people are not simply evil from head to toe. 

But why so many otherwise decent people cling stubbornly to this malady is something of a mystery to me, though I’m sure a lot of it is rooted in fear.  Any help in coming to an understanding about how racism works will be welcome to me.

Jessica Williams, a Daily Show Senior Lifestyle Correspondent, while discussing Paula Deen, pointed out that there are actually two kinds of racism, Type 1, which runs in families and with which some people are born, and Type II, or adult onset racism.  Type II racism, she explained, afflicts people whose brain veins are clogged with “pure, saturated Dixie nostalgia.”  Type II, by the way, is rarely fatal since it can be controlled with an interestingly named patch which will suppress the urge to blurt out offensive comments originating in the brain’s racism center.

I’m not sure about Ms. Williams’ typology, however.  To me, the distinctions I recognize from overheard conversations and frightening website comments, seem to be more finely graded than a two-part categorization would imply.  I am somewhat reluctant to put a specific number on the various levels of American racism, but, in the manner of a true social scientist, I will tentatively offer a Guttman Scale based on the premise that there are at least seven different types or levels of racism afflicting our nation.  According to the principles of this scale, Level Seven represents the most severe form of racism and, in general, anyone exhibiting Symptom 7 will almost certainly exhibit the other six as well.  Each level works similarly in relation to those below it, so that anyone exhibiting Symptom 6 will likely suffer from Symptoms 1 through 5, etc.

Here is the scale with the Symptoms listed in reverse order, numbers 7 through 1:


7. Using the n-word regularly with hostility

6. Telling racist jokes

5. Using the n-word casually and dispassionately (à la Paula Deen)

4. Believing that Barack Obama was born in Africa

3. Believing Detroit went bankrupt because of its large African-American population

2. Believing in “small government” because government spending is
    thought to funnel taxpayer dollars into the hands of minorities
1. Sympathizing more with George Zimmerman than with Trayvon Martin and his family

I recognize that this scale is a first effort and would certainly benefit from constructive comments. Nevertheless, I offer it in a spirit that I hope will encourage reflection on this national malady, particularly among those suffering from one or more of the symptoms listed.  Like President Obama, I am confident that someday America will find a cure.