Thursday, May 07, 2015

Prejudice: An American Reality and an American Tragedy

by John Shelby Spong

It is time that we as a nation stop pretending and face the facts as they are. The evidence is overwhelming. Despite concentrated efforts to perfume intolerance under code words like “states’ rights,” “voter fraud,” “conservative values” and even “religious freedom,” this country is still caught in a web of ancient prejudices. In our public behavior we are infected with massive amounts of racism, sexism and homophobia.

Of these three culturally debilitating evils, the oldest one, racism, is still the most pervasive, the most obvious and the most entrenched. Yes, it is shocking to hear that charge stated so blatantly. It will cause many to react with defensive anger, to issue talking points to counter the pain of reality, which will be only one more sign of its presence. It will challenge the stream of national propaganda that we are fed daily and that we so deeply want to believe about “American Exceptionalism,” about being “a city on a hill,” about being a society based on “law and order” and even about this nation being the “last great hope of the world.”

The fact is that there is some truth in all of these slogans, but the grain of truth present is not sufficient to repress the obvious data that buffets our idealism almost daily with stories of behavior that destroys the beauty of our national dreams. Racism, sexism and homophobia still infect too large a portion of our population. What we like to think of as “the ideal America” seems to be a reality only among those who are white, male and heterosexual.

Police brutality and police engaged in racial profiling are real. They are not just the complaints of that segment of our population who, out of their poverty and rejection by the majority society, are thought to require stricter policing. The accuracy of these charges has now been documented in frank and uncomfortable ways that seem to confront us with stunning regularity, revealing patterns of deep-seated prejudice. Look at the evidence.

An unarmed black teenager is shot and killed in Florida by a self-appointed vigilante because this young man “was not supposed to be in that neighborhood.” The killer is then found innocent by a jury.

A black man, selling contraband cigarettes on Staten Island, is subdued by police. He is killed in the process of being arrested. His last words were, “I can’t breathe.” The policeman, who was white, and who murdered him by a choke hold, was not even indicted.

An unarmed black man was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white policemen, who claimed self-defense. Once again, the white power structure of that community and state investigated the killing, but no indictment was ever issued. No trial in which witnesses had to testify under oath to determine their truthfulness, was ever held. A later federal investigation into police and district attorney policies in Ferguson, Missouri, documented widespread discrimination against people of color; institutional racism was in full practice.

A South Carolina white policeman shot in the back and killed an unarmed black man. The policeman claimed that the black man tried to steal his Taser gun. It was to be a “self-defense” claim. That claim was thwarted, however, by an observer, armed only with the camera in his cell phone, who photographed the murder with chilling objectivity. Faced with this data, the state of South Carolina charged the policeman with murder. We wonder if that would have happened if no film footage had been available. The “righteous indignation” of the state’s highest elected officials was almost amusing, given the history of their past racial insensitivities.

Film footage of an all-white Oklahoma University fraternity party revealed that its members were singing a song about “niggers” and saying “ain’t no nigger gonna be in this fraternity.” Their rhetoric included references to lynching: “hang him on a lamp post.” Faced with this film, widely dispersed on the Internet, Oklahoma University and State officials reacted quickly. The fraternity was closed. Its members were expelled from the university. The leader of the fraternity publicly apologized, but most of us know that this party was not untypical of fraternity racial attitudes across the nation.

These incidents, like many others that could be cited, reveal just how easy racism is to practice and how very deep and yet still close to the surface it is. Even to have racial abuse captured on film is not itself always the path to conviction and justice.

The story of Rodney King and the Los Angeles Police make that very clear.

People suggest that these things are just the activities of a few insensitive and unreconstructed racists, who still infect the nation. The data, however, reflect otherwise as political appeals to racism are consistently used to win elections.

In the 1988 Presidential contest between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, the campaign turned on an emotional, racially-tinged commercial about a paroled prisoner named Willie Horton. Michael Dukakis had approved the recommendation of the parole board for his release. The fact that Dukakis was also a member of the ACLU, an organization dedicated to minority rights, was made to suggest that he was “soft on crime,” i.e. black crime. The appeal to America’s racism was clear and effective. It turned that campaign around.

In 2006, Robert Corker, the mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was running for the United States Senate against a black Democrat, Harold Ford, who was serving in the House of Representatives. Mayor Corker ran ads depicting a white woman seeking to seduce the black congressman, an appeal to latent racial prejudice. Senator Corker rode that ad to a close victory.

In 2008, a black senator from Illinois won the presidency of the United States only to be forced to endure a constant barrage of challenges as to his legitimacy. All were tinged with racism. He is not “one of us.” He was really “born in Kenya.” He is “channeling his African father’s anti-colonialism” said Newt Gingrich. “He really does not love America” said Rudy Giuliani. “He is not a true American” said Sarah Palin.

Racism was so clearly present under what were advertised as “patriotic claims.”

In 2013, the Supreme Court decided by a 5-4 majority that racism was no longer a problem in America and it struck down the provision to keep states with a bad racial voter oppression histories under federal surveillance, which was a part of the Voting Rights Law of 1965.

Immediately, in every state from Texas to Pennsylvania, where that state had both a Republican governor and Republican control of both houses of the state legislature, laws were passed designed to make minority voting more difficult. Racism was now being used to gain political advantage. One Pennsylvania legislator stated boldly that these new voting laws were designed to “guarantee a Romney victory” in that state. Does anyone in this nation today really think that the chronic shortage of voting machines in the black voting districts of Florida, causing people to have to wait in line for hours to cast their votes, is an accident and not a policy?

Victims of systemic prejudice are easy to identify. One only has to look at the disparity in income between blacks and whites, between men and women, at the hiring and firing rates for every minority and even at gerrymandered congressional districts. The political battle over immigration also reflects a deep racial bias. No one wants to build a wall between Canada and the US. Is that because we think of Canadians as white?

“Illegal immigrant” is a pejorative code word. American big business hires these “illegal immigrants” by the thousands every year to harvest American crops. They also keep the hotel industry solvent. Illegal aliens are paid low wages and given no benefits, while wealthy politicians call for them to “self-deport,” by cutting off any aid they might receive to make their lives safe and secure.

The attempt by our overwhelmingly white male, political power structures to close family planning clinics, to make abortion almost impossible to achieve for the poor and even to limit access to birth control is also part of our latent sexism, being justified by little more than pious religious claims, frequently uttered by those for whom church is a non-existent part of their lives. Someone said that if men could have babies, abortion would be a sacrament!

When states seek to pass laws that allow discrimination in the public market place against homosexual couples in order to protect the religiously endorsed convictions of certain voters, is not that blatant homophobia? To have these laws endorsed by politicians seeking the presidency of this nation means that these candidates are convinced that an appeal to homophobia still has political cachet. No appeal to racism, sexism or homophobia would work unless those prejudices were not still in the core of this nation’s corporate psyche. These are not tangential matters.

The time for perfuming racism, sexism and homophobia with pious clich├ęs has surely passed, but they go on and on and on. We, as a nation, are publicly embarrassed time after time when we have to face how overt our corporate prejudices are. We deny its reality, we seek to offer a rational defense when none exists, and we play carefully crafted word games to salve our consciences There is, however, no way that we can finally avoid the truth.

Racism, sexism and homophobia are symptoms of a sickness within America that needs to be faced with honesty. Spades need to be called spades. The tactics of prejudice in our politics needs to be identified. Its pious covers need to be ripped off; its hatred exposed. The hope of America as a functioning democracy is at stake and I for one am sick and tired of having my Christian faith used as a cover for the prejudices that are still so deep within us. The fact is that racist politics still work and they reveal so clearly that the values by which this nation lives are quite different from the values by which we claim to live. The time has come to face that fact with honesty.


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