Thursday, September 20, 2007

Reflections on Racism

When I was eleven or twelve I accidentally walked in on a poker game my uncle was having with a bunch of his buddies. They had been drinking all afternoon, and my uncle tended towards mean even when he was sober, so I tried to back out without getting noticed.

I didn't make it. My uncle spotted me, spun around, and suddenly I was looking down the barrel of his old Colt .45 revolver. He waved it around in my face and yelled "Know what this is boy? It's a nigger gun! Any niggers come 'round here and we're gonna take good care of 'em!" I was scared out of my wits, and it must have showed because the men all howled with drunken laughter. When my uncle finally got tired of his little game and put the gun down I cleared out of there in a mighty big hurry.

My uncle didn't live in rural Mississippi or Louisiana. This little incident happened about 1970 in a nice middle class Boston suburb. Even at that time, and even in the liberal northeast, my uncle's attitude wasn't that unusual, although few people expressed it so openly.

My uncle is dead, and his racism died with him. His children, now middle-aged, show no signs that they inherited their father's beliefs. His kids grew up in a time and place where racism, though still pervasive, was considered increasingly unacceptable. True racists rarely change, but they do eventually die, and that's how the world changes.

Given the recent events in Jena, I thought that it would be appropriate to reflect on how much has changed in our country, and how much more needs to be done. It's easy to forget just how far we've come in the last few decades, but it's even easier to overlook how much of a problem racism still is.

A good measure of overt racism is public attitudes towards interracial marriage. The Gallop Poll has tracked American views on that subject for almost fifty years. In 1958, the year I was born, only four percent of Americans approved of mixed race marriages. Today it's almost eighty percent. That's an astonishing change in less than two generations, yet one in seven Americans still has a problem with interracial marriage. The chart below shows the historical trend. Click it to see a larger version.

Today racism is usually more subtle. Discrimination persists in education, employment, housing, and law enforcement, but it's often masked by poverty. Conservatives, as well as some on the left, excuse these things simply as economic reality, the free market treating poor people like poor people, but there's more to it than that. All else being equal, skin color still is a big factor in where you start, and end up, in American society. (Yes, I can back that up with hard data if any of my conservative friends are wondering)

Beating racism is an unfinished job, and our biggest enemy is complacency. The problem is rarely as obvious as the events in Jena, but we must look beyond the individuals involved and focus on the culture that shaped their attitudes. In time the old racists in Jena will die out. Our real challenge is to ensure that they aren't replaced.