"War is the greatest threat to public health." - Gino Strada, Italian war surgeon and founder of the UN-recognized Italian NGO Emergency

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Racism in America: Ignorance is NOT Bliss

The writer, Willaim Faulkner once said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." The New York Times used Faulkner's aphorism as it applies to "The Last Lynching", a documentary that aired on the Discovery Channel last night. According to the Times review, "Ted Koppel weaves Senator Barack Obama’s presidential nomination into the same social fabric as some of the best-known events of the civil rights era and some of the country’s least examined acts of violence." The last lynching in America took place only 27 years ago, and it seems that many of the lessons of that era have yet to be learned.

Recent events associated with the upcoming election indicate that there may be more simmering bigotry and racial hatred lying just beneath the surface in America than we realize (or are prepared to admit). After Sarah Palin's remark at a recent rally that, "I'm afraid this [Barak Obama] is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to work with a former domestic terrorist who had targeted his own country", someone yelled, "Kill him!" The Washington Post reported that at another Palin rally (among other things) a "Palin supporter shouted a racial epithet at an African American sound man and told him, 'Sit down, boy.'"

Now that's scary! Sarah Palin has been taking lessons from the President's (Fear 101) playbook. If we are going to be "afraid" of anything, it should be just this sort of fear mongering that seems to have pervaded America for nearly eight years (and has created an atmosphere of fear, distrust and animosity). One could argue that whipping crowds into this sort of froth isn't that far removed from the techniques used during the height of the Lynching era when literally thousands of white people would show up for the spectacle of an African American man being strung up.

The underlying world view that we are superior to others gives us permission to generalize, demonize and reduce people to a subhuman category by virtue of factors like their skin color, language, customs or place of birth. Once we have done that, we can justify (in our own minds) just about any behavior, no matter how heinous. But in doing so we, ourselves, become less human. Those hideous word's, "Kill him" remind me that Faulkner was right, the past is (sadly) not past at all, and it does not take much to bring out that which still haunts us from our ugly history.

Most of the talk I have heard on TV and radio has focused on racism and the way it is being dealt with in the context of the election campaign, but could this be a far more systemic problem than we would care to admit. A woman at a recent McCain rally said that "Obama is an Arab", to which McCain replied, "...he's a decent family man, citizen..." Senator McCain's response indicated (to me) an underlying racism towards Arabs; does he believe that Arabs are not "decent family men"? And doesn't the woman's statement indicate tremendous ignorance about people of the Arabic world?

Ignorance of others facilitates the creation of a state of fear, which makes it easy to lead people down the road of hate.

Like the Rogers and Hammerstein song from South Pacific:

You have to be taught to hate and fear,
You have to be taught from year to year,
It has to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You have 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 diff'rent 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!

It's an ages old story and, as with so many stories, it's time to change this one. The best thing we (who try to develop compassionate understanding) can do is to educate those who have a lack of understanding of those who are different; whether by skin color or nationality or other differences. We can have an impact in our homes, our workplaces and public meeting places. One by one we can chip away at the ignorance that is at the root of the problem. Through our collective efforts perhaps we can ensure that although this particular past may never be dead, it can, indeed, be past.

Read more about "The Last Lynching", and when it will be shown again at the Discovery Channel.

Towards Peace,


Further Resources on Racism and Lynching in America
Modern-Day Racism Masks Its Ugly Head , an Op/Ed piece from the Los Angeles Times, September, 11, 2000
Lynchings in America, from Long Island University (Warning! This Web page contains some graphic photos of lynchings)

No comments: