As Obama’s inauguration approaches, I have been hearing more and more about how racism in the US has ended, is on its way out, or is no longer an issue. This unprecedented event has me thinking a few different thoughts, but not one of them includes the idea that racism is ‘dead.’
The election of a black president to what many consider the most powerful position in the world has inspired many African Americans and I have heard many in the ‘black community’ even stating that ‘we now have no excuses.’ The idea that this election has eradicated racism is a dangerous exaggeration. While racism as we once knew it has disappeared –separate water fountains, black face, denial of rights like voting and education–it has, instead, taken a new form. The racism I see nowadays is systemic. It is not based on individuals mistreating other individuals. It is not spoken out loud.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, racism is:
1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race 2 : racial prejudice or discrimination.
The belief described in the first definition often comes from a lack of knowledge. Most often, people form stereotypes and believe these stereotypes to be true when they have little knowledge of the actual person being stereotyped. This is what scares me about racism today. Stereotypes occur across racial lines, and are not always based on race (i.e. I am from New York originally. When I tell people this, they raise an eyebrow and say, “Oh, you’re a New Yorker, huh?”). It is natural for humans to create false conceptions about people they don’t know or have never met. Think of the stereotype Americans have abroad, or the stereotypes that Irish or Italians have in this country.
So what does all of this have to do with racism and the inauguration?
While Obama’s presidency is proof that we as a country have evolved and moved forward substantially over the last 50 years, it is not the ‘end of racism.’ The racism I see today is in a system that continually overlooks the underprivileged and under-represented people. As a teacher, the system with which I am most familiar is, of course the education system. The photos I put in this blog are part of a larger problem. These kinds of conditions would be considered an outrage in a different socio-economic neighborhood. In that case, race is not an issue, but rather economics. However, it just so happens that my school is 99% African American. In that case, race becomes an issue. I have not yet decided whether it is or is not racism, but it is a sign of the “racial discrimination” described in the definition above.
Now here is where segregation comes in. On November 14, 1960 Ruby Bridges walked through the doors of an all-white elementary school and made history. No longer would black students be forced to attend black-only schools. No longer would white students be kept apart from their black peers. Rather, they would have to learn to accept them, whether or not they respected them. I assume that many of these white students did not have any black friends, nor did they associated with black people in general. Neighborhoods were segregated, too. In this way, each ‘side’ created their own image of each other based on appearances, impressions and stereotypes. The only way to break down the hatred was to give each ‘side’ a chance to interact with one another.
Desegregation did not end racism. However, it did open up avenues for change.
What has happened in the last decade or so has frightened me. I have seen the end of mandatory bussing (a system set up to aid in desegregating schools), the re-segregation of neighborhoods, and the re-segregation of schools. As a result, schools in poor communities tend to be neglected and receive little support because the community in which they live is also neglected and receives little support. With poor performing schools, how can students in poor neighborhoods ‘make it?’ It puts them immediately at a disadvantage. Were schools to be intentionally desegregated, it would increase the range of influence of a school across racial and economic lines and create, perhaps, more equal opportunities. I’m not sure if bussing is the answer, but what is happening in many neighborhoods in Philadelphia reminds me of how neighborhoods were set up during segregation. It’s almost like we’re moving backwards again. This racial segregation and discrimination through poor education is where racism lies today.
In addition, as I mentioned above, my students go to a school that is 99% African American because they live in a neighborhood that is 99% African American. For many them, their teachers are the only white or non-black people with whom they interact. For that reason, they have many false stereotypes about white people and white culture based on what they see on television, in movies and on what they hear from others. On the other hand, there are schools elsewhere (many of them also in poor neighborhoods) in which students never come across a person of color, and therefore have their own stereotypes as well. This is how hatred and racism start. Through sheer ignorance. This effect is easy to see when I show my students a picture of children who are from another state (Eeww! They’re ugly!) or another country (Hah hah! Look what they’re wearing!) who do not look like my students. It’s frightening. While our world gets smaller and smaller, it is important that these future adult citizens accept others and be able to respect those who do not resemble them in culture, color or language.
I’m not sure what the solution is to these issues, and I don’t pretend to have any. However, I hope that Obama’s presidency will serve as a catalyst for young African Americans to dream big, put down guns and pick up books. This cannot happen, however, without a focus on the problems surrounding our failing schools and a failing education system. Without education, many poor children are left empty-handed and turn to guns, violence and crime. The decrepit and dysfunctional schools that exist in poor communities is a form of systemic racism as well as fuel for the fires of hatred, ignorance and misunderstanding.