Sunday, April 11, 2010

The status is not quo for race relations in this country

What if Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous speech ushered in an era of color-blind racism?

In the run-up to last year's presidential election, I talked with an African-American friend about how we expected the news coverage to turn back to the race factor as the pundits ran out of hot-button policy topics to overanalyze.

I was taken aback to hear him put forth the alternative theory on the impact of the "I Have a Dream" speech. The crux of the contention is a simple matter of word order. King dreamed of his four children living in a nation where they were not judged by the color of their skin. That was all most of the audience heard.

It became unfashionable, after that speech, to proclaim racist feelings, but people still harbored them. Individuals would tell friends, neighbors - and pollsters - that they had no problem with people of color, but their palms started sweating as soon as they got in an elevator with two black men. The essence of color-blind racism is saying one thing and doing another.

The need for President Barack Obama's beer summit, the faux pas of “wise Latina” and even the hostilities at recent town hall meetings are likely manifestations of color-blind racism. However, calling someone a racist (yes, Mr. Carter, I’m looking at you) doesn’t move us any closer to solving the problem.

Somewhere along the line uneasiness with taboo became status quo. Anger and frustration has taken the place of talking about race, and those with nefarious agendas easily play those tautly strung emotions. In many ways, it feels as though we’ve lost the vocabulary to discuss racial differences rationally.

I say this realizing I live in Oregon, which has a different racial composition than the other places I've lived: Missouri and Alabama. Still, when I tell people about Alabama they look at me and ask if it's as screwed up as they've heard. Sadly, I've witnessed prejudice and discrimination here equal to any I saw there.

Racial differences are exquisite things. They can add to our worldview with riches beyond measure or separate us with razor-edged precision. Knowing the story of someone who defies stereotypical representations has been my strongest defense against giving into them.

I know two individuals who started out as illegal immigrants, but persevered through the hardships of that status and ended up as educators. I would be elated to have my child learn from them. I count among my friends a stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful Hispanic woman who covered her arms with long sleeves as a kid growing up in Eastern Oregon. Stories like those remind me how much room for improvement we have in our state, in the country and even within myself.

Race is far more than the color of one's skin. Race is an intrinsic part of each individual's story. Once we start listening, we begin judging people by the content of their character.

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