Improving Race Relations

Posted: May 31, 2001 12:00 AM
Much of the tension regarding skin pigmentation in this country is rooted in the cultural patterns wrought by slavery. It has to do with the not-so-subtle social hierarchies that a shared history of slavery created. These cultural divisions were sewn so deep into our social fabric, for so long, that even today white Americans have trouble imagining themselves as the "other" skin color. For much of the past four decades, our government has consciously attempted to undo these racial hierarchies and to create a country not of blacks and whites, but of humans. To this end, the government has backed several civil-rights measures aimed at engineering equality between white Americans and their former slaves. The justification for this civil-rights legislation was straightforward: Minorities are owed affirmative action and preferential quotas so as to rectify the overt discrimination of the past. There is little doubt that these measures helped haul along race relations in this country. Just one thing: The emphasis of much of this civil-rights legislation is on retribution, rather than conventional social activism. The major implication: Blind obedience to the original civil-rights legislation might ultimately create a culture of victimization that never moves beyond those initial steps. Four decades later, it is time to take a hard look at race relations in this country, and to reconsider whether embracing victim status for all members of a fixed group - in this case, minorities - will truly help this country to move beyond race. To this end, we should be willing to do what so many of our cultural torchbearers are afraid to do - examine our civil-rights legislation from a critical perspective so as to ensure that they do not ultimately become a straightjacket. One of the first things we must address is school busing. Clearly, this program has not worked as it was intended. It has little or no effect on ending racism. How can we expect a child, who is bused from a poor, urban area to a school in another, better neighborhood, to learn how to overcome racism when they may face it from more advantaged kids who are not bused in from poor districts? The school districts, while their hearts might be in the right place as they try to provide opportunity for the best education, may unknowingly be contributing to racism in their schools. When these children are sent home at the end of the day, they face racism in their back yards, in their streets, all around them. They may be witnesses to a new segregation. Busing allows school districts to work around the problems of the inner cities, not solve them. It is an admission that nothing can be done to improve the quality of inner-city schools. It further fuels the argument that urban schools simply cannot be competitive enough to attract students in their own districts. We should be more concerned with the quality of our public schools, regardless of their location. Our tax dollars pay for them, yet many of us are not concerned enough with what goes on in them. Are we simply admitting our failure and accepting the idea that nothing can be done to improve our schools? We should build each other up rather than bring each other down in our attempt to level the playing field. But what else can be done? We can have our children spend time with those of other races and backgrounds, exposing them to other cultures so that they can interact with each other as equals and see that they are more alike than not. The key is to start them off early, before they are influenced by stereotypes. Sleepovers, vacations and parties are some of the ways to maintain close contact. Environments where they are all treated fairly, impartially and without favor will instill in our children a sense of equality, which they will hopefully carry with them throughout their lives. Adults can not be allowed to pass on their racism to their sons and daughters. They, too, must put aside their personal prejudices. Let young people learn for themselves how other people live, how they act and how to treat those who are not like them. Let people think for themselves and make up their own minds how to live their lives. There are those who wish to maintain their heritage and their individual and group identities. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as it does not lead to persecution of those outside of your group. A healthy pride in one's history is a good thing, but not when it starts to impede the rights of others. This brings us to affirmative action. We have heard the argument that minorities cannot get ahead without the assistance that affirmative action gives them, because America has not changed much since the days of slavery and of segregation. But America has changed a lot since those dark days. What has happened since the 1960s and the Civil Rights Act is that programs that were designed to give oppressed groups a helping hand as a means of getting ahead has become an end in and of itself. Yet we must address the reason why people believe otherwise. Their perceptions are just as important as the truth. People see and believe what they want. We have to ask ourselves why they are not getting the message? Perhaps we are not explaining it the right way, and if we cannot explain it well, it may well be we do not fully understand it ourselves. These are just a few ideas on moving beyond race; there are many more. I don't claim to have all the answers, but the solutions laid out above are steps in the right direction. Working together, honestly and in good faith, will bring us closer to our goal.