Alex Haley, prize-winning journalist and author of “Roots” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” went so far as to describe racism as “a curse against mankind.”
It probably is just that … and more. Certainly it has been and continues to be a poisonous thorn in America’s side. All over the world, actually, but for the sake of this article, the focus is on this story.
The effects of racism, and its many “byproducts,” is mindboggling, and it is extremely doubtful that there exists anywhere a person of African descent who has not been touched in some way by racism, blatant or subtle.
My first encounter with racism took place when I was about eight years old. A White friend from down the street, Mark, invited me to his house. He introduced me to his mother who was in the backyard hanging up clothes. With a surprised yet resigned-to-the-reality look on her face, she said, “Oh well, a playmate’s a playmate.”
That was in the late 1950s. Fast forward to the mid-1960s. A White female coworker informed me that she had dined at the Roostertail over the previous weekend and, seeing nothing insulting in what she was about to say, said, “I didn’t know they allowed integration in a classy place like that.”
Then in the early 1970s I walked into a downtown drugstore on Washington Blvd., and immediately the White cashier near the entrance of the store called out loudly, “Watch the floor!”
These are just three examples, and certainly minor ones compared the real horrors of racism, such as that which would prompt a horrendously misguided and hate-filled man to murder nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, but the roots are the same.
One group believing they are inherently “better” than another, particularly if the “another” is of color. How else could one group of people feel justified in enslaving another? Fear spews all kinds of venom, and the residue never goes away, becoming tightly weaved into the fabric of society, sometimes rearing its ugly head in unexpected places.
One reference source describes racism as “consisting of ideologies and practices that seek to justify, or cause, the unequal distribution of privileges, rights or goods among different racial groups. Modern variants are often based in social perceptions of biological differences between peoples. These can take the form of social actions, practices or beliefs, or political systems that consider different races to be ranked as inherently superior or inferior to each other. It may also hold that members of different races should be treated differently.”
Perhaps a bit overly scholarly, but it makes the point, and it is interesting to note that although racism in practice is as old as the United States, the word itself was not used until the earlier part of the 1900s.
It is the residual effects of the outward racism of previous decades that make many Blacks and Whites distrustful of each other; that make Whites and Blacks often have completely different interpretations of events; that make it “acceptable” to use degrading epithets to describe various ethnic groups; that make some policemen far more likely to fatally shoot a Black man than a White one.
That make a disturbing number of Black people accept and actually to embrace the word “nigger”; that fuels the still-existing belief — on both sides of the fence — that a light-skinned Black woman is more attractive than a dark-skinned one. Had the lovely Vanessa Williams been a dark-skinned woman, she would not have been crowned the first Black Miss America in 1983.
True, racism is a “tired,” uncomfortable subject and a remarkable amount of progress has been made in matters of race, the foremost example being Barack Obama ascending to the presidency of the United States, something not thought even remotely possible just a short while ago.
But there has also been an upsurge in hate groups and hate crimes, and no president has taken as much flak as President Obama, a fact acknowledged by former president Jimmy Carter.
Carter courageously spoke out publicly of “a belief that (Obama) should not be president because he happens to be African American. It is a racist attitude and my hope and my expectation is that in the future both Democratic leaders and Republican leaders will take the initiative in condemning (this) kind of unprecedented attack on the president of the United States.”
To his credit, President Obama has handled the potshots and other forms of disrespect with class and dignity, at no time sinking to the level of those who unfairly criticize.
But this is not an attempt to paint most White people with one brush. After all, were it not for the existence Whites of good will and fair mind, Barack Obama could never have been elected President, and certainly not re-elected.
Racism in its many manifestations stands in the way of people reaching their highest potential, and that could be its most damaging effect.