Speaking of Ethnicity

Race relations in the United States is becoming a third rail topic. Better to discuss politics and religion than to suggest there might be ongoing patterns of systemic racism in some circles.

If social media is any indication, some groups seem to think that by even discussing racial differences, others are fomenting and accentuating racism.

In extreme cases this is true. However, in most cases, the people discussing racial issues are dealing with the real difference between the minority and majority experience in the United States.

The Myth of Color Blindness

One of the arguments against discussing race is the argument that society should be “color blind.” The term means that we should not consider the color of people’s skin when making evaluations of people and their work.

Image Credit: Old Couple, used by CC license, http://ow.ly/oA8T303zFnk

Image Credit: Old Couple, used by CC license, http://ow.ly/oA8T303zFnk

I believe that most people engaged in discussions of race relations see “color blindness” as a desirable outcome in the long term. In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, part of his dream is that people will not be judged by the color of their skin. Someday a future generation may reach that point.

Despite the desire to have a world in which skin color does not matter, that world does not exist now. We have a world in which ethnicity and skin color still do matter much more than they should.

At this point, there are some who will swoop down onto my argument like a vulture to point out certain statistics. What I’m speaking of here is more than just statistics—whether the statistics support certain percentages of killings by ethnicity or disparate academic outcomes.

I’m speaking of the observed reality that my middle-class, professional, African-American friends have on average been pulled over many more times than I have for no more apparent cause. I’m speaking of the reality of my own observations of minority males of color being treated differently than me by authorities even while we were both in uniform. I’m speaking of the internal impulse in my own mind to make snap judgments about people based on their appearance.

I like statistics (in fact they are a fun part of my job), but they don't always tell the whole story. Sometimes they tell a different story than reality.

To claim that skin color does not influence societal evaluations is foolish. It’s like a person ignoring an infection in a limb.

Our Wounded Reality

Imagine if you get a cut in your finger while working a dirty job. You ignore the pain and keep working. You tell your hand that it is OK and that it is just like your other uninjured hand. Both hands are equally valuable to you, therefore it should stop hurting. Meanwhile it gets infected. However, you don’t clean the wound or treat it. You tell your hand that the cut was inflicted a couple of days ago and that it hasn’t been cut recently, so it should stop aching. Slowly the infection may heal, if conditions are right. Or, quite possibly, ignoring the legitimate needs of your hand could cause the infection to spread and perhaps even blood poisoning to set in.

At best, the neglected hand heals itself but may scar significantly or take longer to fully heal due to the lack of medical care. At worst, the blood poisoning spreads and kills the individual with the injured hand. In both cases consequences could have been avoided by taking timely, appropriate action.

Few people would ignore an injured hand. Instead, most people react to a cut by getting first aid, keeping it clean, and treating the injured hand differently for a time. The common sense understanding is that the wounded hand may have different needs for a time.

There is wisdom in recognizing there is a difference between the hands and taking care of the wound.

Our contemporary reality of race relations is something like this analogy.[1]

The Reality of Injury

To provide just one example, African-Americans were economically and socially harmed by American society by being enslaved and later by unjust laws that were in place in the middle of the last century. There are enough evidences of ongoing negative racial bias that we need to accept that such bias continues to exist in some cases. (See: the alt-right movement)

There has been legitimate injury done that will necessarily take time to heal. It may also take focused attention to promote healing, which includes at least being free to talk about racial differences without being accused of fomenting division.

Until healing occurs, we need to recognize that there are differences in society between the experiences of people of different ethnicities. Stereotypes built on generations of observed behavior, depictions in entertainment media, and self-selected identities all impact the experience of people in the United States. It takes time to change these deeply seated societal ideas, but the first step is to recognize they exist. Someday we may be able to be “color blind,” but we aren’t there yet. In many cases we really aren’t that close.

Moving Toward Change

We should long for the day when ethnicity is a point of interesting difference, like discussing where people grew up and what their favorite home-cooked food is. However, the experience of racial minorities in the United States is often significantly different than that of the majority. If you want to know what sorts of differences exist, talk to a few minorities. Their experiences will be unique, but some common patterns will tend to emerge if the sample size is large enough.

Unless we address the injustice of some of those differences, the healing process will not progress very quickly. Unless people are free to explain what is wrong without being accused of hate and division, we can never have meaningful conversations.

We can certainly have meaningful discussions about the best ways to deal with our differences. There is no simple solution for undoing the intentional harm inflicted in and by previous generations. There is no single, easy method of eliminating the often obscure, but deeply seated biases of contemporary perceptions.

However, until people are allowed to have open, charitable conversations about the existence of differences because of ethnicity, society will be unable to move to the next phase of healing.

[1] The analogy obviously breaks down at some point. I am not inferring that racial minorities are somehow infected limbs that should be removed from society. Quite the reverse. I am hopeful that this analogy will illustrate the interconnectedness of society and the value in promoting social healing for overall health. Just as one does not blame the hand for being wounded, we should not blame minorities for past ills inflicted by society.