Now that the flaming rhetoric over the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin shooting case has mostly subsided, it seems like a good time to more calmly discuss the issue of racism in America. Does it exist? You bet it does. But intellectually honest people have to admit prejudice is a long-standing exercise practiced by people of all backgrounds. In this instance, blacks and whites.
I got to thinking about this recently after reading a column titled “Profiling Obama,” written by Bill Keller of The New York Times, a writer I have much admired. It described President Barack Obama’s dilemma of appearing “too black” to some people and “not black enough” to others. At the end of the column, there was a quote from Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP. “There’s sort of a persistent misperception that talking about race is black folk’s burden,” he said. “Ultimately, only men can end sexism, and only white people can end racism.”
I almost fell out of my chair! Was Jealous seriously saying that black people are never prejudiced against whites and that it is always the other way around? Had Jealous missed the part of the Zimmerman trial in which a female witness who was on the phone with the black Martin right before the shooting quoted the teenager as calling the older man “a creepy-a** white cracker”?
And did it escape Jealous’ attention when, just a few weeks later, Rep. Charlie Rangel, an African-American Democrat from New York, opined about the Tea Party, “It’s the same group we faced in the South with those white crackers and the dogs and the police.” Sounds like a nasty, prejudiced, anti-white epithet to me.
That Keller allowed the Jealous quote to go unchallenged bothered me. It allowed the misinterpretation to stand that whites are to blame for all the racial tension in America, which of course is absurd. There is enough distrust, prejudice and downright hate to go around.
The sad fact is everyone needs to check their racist attitudes because we all have them. Discrimination and bigotry have been a plague on humanity for thousands of years. For as long as there has been civilization, tribes of similar people have looked upon those who are different skeptically. It is a built-in component of human nature to distrust those who are not like you.
I hesitate to repeat the phrase “racism” because I honestly think we are all one race — the human race. What we’re really talking about is conflict based on ethnic differences that have been around since long before biblical times.
Today, ethnic struggles simmer worldwide: Arabs vs. Jews, Turks and Armenians, Greeks and Turks, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims, the Serbs against the Bosnians.
America has had several ethnic conflicts, but the prejudice between blacks and whites has endured the longest. Its roots are steeped, of course, in the horrible history of U.S. slavery. It has been 148 years since Congress passed the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, putting an end to slavery. Nonetheless, for some blacks the ugly past can neither be forgotten nor forgiven.
On the other hand, in the white community there is a widespread belief that a majority of crimes are perpetrated by blacks. Whites probably don’t stop to realize that crime often rises from areas of greatest poverty, and since police more often patrol poor black neighborhoods, it’s a given that that is where more arrests take place.
The cold, hard statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics? Ethnic groups usually prey on their own. Between 1976 and 2005, for example, 94 percent of black murder victims were killed by other blacks, and 86 percent of murdered white people were killed by other whites. Truth be told, people from both these ethnic groups would feel threatened if walking alone at night and coming face-to-face with a group of young men of the opposite color.
So, what do we do about this built-in prejudice we all carry around?
May I suggest we take a lesson from a young college student at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington?
Brent Campbell was keeping up his solitary workout schedule for the track team when a pickup truck carrying five young white men began threatening him — screaming profanity and yelling racial slurs. The verbal attack shook Campbell to his core, and then he realized the truck had turned around and was headed his way again. The driver slowed down and angrily stared at the young athlete, letting loose with a torrent of N-word-laced threats. Campbell, the son of a minister, dutifully reported the incident to campus police.
“The real issue is that nobody knows each other,” he calmly said during a TV interview. In a letter to school officials, Campbell suggested a punishment for the culprits if and when they are caught. He wants them to be compelled to get to know him: “I’d want to meet with them over lunch or dinner once a week for a year … make them do that instead of getting expelled. Let’s just talk.”
In a comment wise beyond his years, this college junior says it is clear the young men were taught such ugly thoughts. “Hate, bitterness, anger like this grows in the dark,” the handsome young man told CNN. “So, the hope is that I get to shed some light on that.”
And, the first thing he would say to his tormentors? “I forgive you,” he said. “And I really mean that.”
That, my friends, is the only way to begin to wipe out thousands of years of distrust, prejudice and bigotry. We all need to adopt Campbell’s attitude and find the strength to understand and embrace the entire human race.
— Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.