Diogenes, the Greek philosopher best known for walking the streets of Athens during the day with a lantern and saying he was looking for an honest man, was spotted by Alexander the Great rummaging through a pile of human bones. When Alexander asked him what he was doing, Diogenes said, “I am looking for the bones of your father, but I cannot distinguish them from the bones of his slaves.”
Racism: the absence of intellectual and rational thought when assessing the inherent value of another individual. Will America finally rid itself of this malaise in the 21st century? Or will its side effects continue to cripple us into the third millennium?
The last century witnessed some bold attempts to legislate racism out of the American mind-set. Much was accomplished. Through such enlightened initiatives as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, school integration and others, significant progress was made to end legal racism. And to be sure, such legislation, once enacted and actually practiced, helped in changing the thinking of many Americans. This century will surely see a refinement of established laws as well as new laws to guarantee equal rights and opportunities for everyone. Such efforts will be effective in preventing overt racism.
But racism, at least the subtle and disguised kind, won’t be eradicated through legislation alone. Not only must we be able and willing to obey the law, we – as individuals, communities and a nation – also must be able and willing to recognize racism in all its forms and obey our conscience.
Once, after moving to a new residence, I had several pieces of furniture that I couldn’t take with me. I offered them to an African-American man I know very well. I gave him the key to the house and told him to get the furniture whenever he could. He insisted that I meet him there because he jokingly said he didn’t want folks to see a black man going into a North Dallas home and taking out furniture without the owner present.
Although he made light of his comment, he was serious. Would this man really draw suspicion simply because of his hue?
Whether his concern was real or imagined, he shouldn’t have had to worry. Not only was he a hard-working individual who coached youth football and basketball. He was, in every sense of the word, an American hero. Assigned to an evacuation unit in Vietnam, he routinely risked his life by helping to carry wounded soldiers to a waiting helicopter.
We must decide that we will assess the value of others based on their character, integrity, effort and contributions. To do that, we must break or at least loosen the chains that link us to particular groups. Too many of us spend an inordinate amount of time promoting our own value by identifying ourselves with a particular race, club, fraternity, university, neighborhood, etc.
Too often, a group member, without the benefit of facts or disregarding the facts altogether, will blindly defend another member who has committed an egregious wrong. And too often, members of a group will attempt to usurp credit for the contributions made by another member.
A Dallas Morning News headline once read, “Cisneros’ fall won’t hurt Latinos, experts say.” Why should any Latino feel shame or embarrassment as a result of someone else’s actions? Only that one individual is responsible for his behavior. Conversely, why should a City Council member take pride in saying, “It is a big plus for us because…we will have somebody in that position who looks like us,” when referring to the appointment of a minority to an important position?
Having someone who looks like us is a job qualification that that was outlawed in 1964. Voters also must stop using such criteria for selecting who will represent them.
If today’s civic, business and elected leaders continue to promote the idea that we can be fairly represented only by our “own kind,” we not only have lost the battle, we also have lost the war.
Before truly serious work can be done to eliminate racism, it is incumbent upon community and business leaders, and particularly upon elected officials, to discard their self-interest and work together to guarantee that all our children receive a quality education.
We can wipe the slate clean and start anew. On wilderness outings with my students, I insisted that we leave our campsite cleaner than it was when we arrived.
It is time to remove the veneer of color as an obstacle to progress and leave for those who follow a world much cleaner than when we arrived.
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