I’ve come in conflict with unashamed racists over my lifetime. If nothing else, those encounters have prepared me for teaching my son about existing in an increasing multicultural society. As we become a more diverse nation, there will be some pain associated with going through those changes. I dread the day when inevitably I have to guide the young through such an event. However, a somewhat innocent event that happened last year gave me a head start.
As the principal at my son’s school investigated some boys-will-be-boys drama among the kids, he discovered that my son had been sending text messages including some foul language. I wasn’t bothered, because he’s at the age when I first learned the power of profanity. I did become concerned when I discovered how flippantly kids were using the term “that’s racist.” I know hipsters were using it in irony a few years ago. These middle school kids were really too young to be that sophisticated with it. It was a good time to start talking in depth about race and racism, other than the overview I’d been giving him until then. I could talk about my experiences, about being called a “nigger” many times over, fighting with Klan members and my work as an Equal Employment Officer.
The kinds of battles I experienced are today’s headlines. The #blacklivesmatter hashtag received criticism as its cultural impact grew. The phrase, used in response to a series of possibly criminal acts by police officers, meant to signify the user’s desire to end police profiling of black men, to stop cops from acting as if the lives of African American men were disposable.
While young activists of all races used the hashtag when posting to social media, some believed that it was exclusionary rather than inclusionary. Those people miss the point of the phrase; however, the sentiment behind their concerns is well founded. Today, the battle against racism and discrimination is bigger than Black vs White. While negative interactions between police and Black men continue to be a scourge of our society, it isn’t the only battle we must fight.
Increasing multiculturalism and the impact on society
While battles between Los Angeles police and Black youth captured headlines in the late 1980s, immigration brought in waves of a variety of ethnicities. It took close observers of racial politics to notice. The Asian population grew 70% during the ‘80s. The foreign-born Latino population grew by 56% and the children of US and foreign-born Latinos made up 44% of the growth.
Yet the changes barely registered in the flyover states. Towards the end of the decade, the presence of immigrants began to be felt. Spike Lee acknowledged the growth of Korean-American immigrants in his 1989 film Do the Right Thing, where a Korean grocery store owner expressed solidarity with the Black people in Brooklyn, NY. Asian American students, who began to outperform all other ethnic groups, were tagged the “Model Minority” by some conservatives. Meanwhile, Latinos on the West Coast were tagged as gangbangers and thus dangerous.
The popular view of these minorities changed as their population grew. Latin men were once sex symbols in Hollywood. The “Latin Lover” was a popular stereotype in the ‘40s, which dissipated during the gang wars of the 1990s. Asian Americans were villains during World War II as the US fought Japan, and became villains again after the rise of the Japanese economy in the 80s. Yet, within the African American community, some sought solidarity with Asian groups, and admired Asian philosophies. This changed when Asian Americans started small businesses in Black communities. Black people in LA began to protest Asian-owned businesses after a store owner killed a young woman he suspected of theft, and during the 1992 Watts riots, Korean-Americans and African-Americans clashed.
Arabs and Muslims suffer greatly
Today, perhaps the greatest contrast between past and present exists in our view of Arab Americans or those who practice the Muslim faith. Americans considered Arabs exotic creatures of mystery and sensuality and sometimes mysticism. The population of Arabs in the US was relatively small due to a variety of factors, including federal acts that limited immigration. Most Arabs who made it through professed the Christian faith and migrated to the industrial areas in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
As the conflicts in the Middle East grew more destructive and the Arab combatants grew more desperate, Americans began to see Arab Americans differently. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) formed to combat growing violence and discrimination against Arab Americans and immigrants. When the conflicts overseas began to involve Americans, the discrimination got worse. Now, in the post-9/11 era, Arabs and Muslims – even those mistaken for Arabs – suffer hate crimes at an astonishing rate. After two Muslims killed several co-workers in San Bernardino, CA, hate crimes against Muslims tripled.
The power of institutions
It isn’t just among the general population that racism is still a problem. The malfeasance by police officers exhibits a problem among our institutions. Bad cops aren’t the only government officials exhibiting behaviors that can be deemed racist. Maine’s governor Paul Le Page insulted the populace of his state when he suggested that White women were getting impregnated by Black drug dealers, creating a “sad” thing, “another issue that we have to deal with.” Several state and US legislators have proposed anti-Islamic laws according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Donald Trump, the leading Republican candidate in the 2016 Presidential election, regularly mouths off proposals banning Muslims and called Mexican immigrants “rapists.”
These people and organizations are in positions of power. They can affect lives. If the elected and appointed leaders think this way, you can be certain some of the barons of industry share similar ideas. They can keep ethnic and racial minorities from jobs, from attaining positions of leadership, or even from living in certain neighborhoods.
Acknowledging a problem
Given the current climate, it may be difficult to combat this current tide. The #blacklivesmatter movement has several galvanizing events to motivate people to act. Videos clearly show men choked or kids shot by cops. Protests motivate prosecutors to at least investigate the incidents, if not attempt to bring bad actors to justice.
It may be more difficult to motivate people to act against less obvious forms of racism. The hate crimes against Muslims often occur under the cover of night as vandals disfigure a Mosque. No one is harmed, and the community coalesces to undo the damage. Asian-American students, especially those living in urban populations, report a higher incidence of bullying (verbally and physically) than other ethnic groups. However, we tend to view bullying as a rite of passage for young people rather than a systemic problem, and often kids don’t report incidents of bullying, not wanting to be seen as a “snitch.”
How to combat racism
How do we combat racism? We should be taking several steps as a nation and as individuals.
The battle against racism can start from the top down. The American Civil Liberties Union petitioned the White House to form a comprehensive national plan of action that would address everything from police brutality to housing discrimination. President Obama has preferred to give galvanizing speeches to instigating government action, except in the case of immigration reform. And such a plan from the government would certainly attract anger from the political right. However, the federal government can spur others to action by placing importance on the issue.
Find and support local organizations engaged in grappling with issues of race. Racism can seem like a huge and overwhelming problem. Yet putting enough heads together can make the problem seem smaller. Small groups can work with other small groups, and soon there exists a coalition. This is how the Civil Rights Movement grew to be a force in American society in the 1960s.
Don’t be afraid to speak up to friends and acquaintances and – if the situation warrants – strangers. You can tactfully open a discussion when hearing a friend make a racist statement instead of wagging a finger at them. You’d be amazed how few people want to be associated with being called a racist, even if they hold ideas considered racist.
Teach your children well. It’s difficult, but necessary. Younger children living in this new multicultural America can take the melting pot for granted. They may not be aware that the teasing of a kid for being an Asian kid trying to play basketball can cause that kid long-term depression according to the American Psychological Association. They may not understand the real impact of their actions. Teaching the kids about racism may have the greatest impact of all.
By Guest Blogger, Mark Mays
Mark is a freelance journalist with 16 years of experience writing for print publications and the web. Mark has been a Contributing Writer for The Tennessean and the Nashville Scene, institutions with circulations of 200,000 and 100,000 readers respectively. He’s placed pieces in national magazines as well. Mark’s first published works were short fiction and poetry, and he has written scripts for instructional television programs for educators.
Mark graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Law and has worked in politics, employment law, as an appeals hearing officer and senior researcher on a legal historical study.