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Are Race Relations Improving?

tom_honig_sNearly two years ago, America elected its first African-American president. Observers by the score commented on the significance of a biracial president, and wondered whether it finally signaled that race relations had improved in America.

So have the intervening months proved anything about prejudice? Do minorities now feel that all things are possible in America? Do whites feel free of their own prejudices?

Of course not. The election of a president doesn’t really change lives in ways that the columnists predict. It’s easy in retrospect, for example, to comment on America’s changing attitudes when John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, was elected—but at the time his religion really wasn’t any sort of attitude game-changer.

We still have our eruptions over race. Most recent was the outrage in some quarters over the verdict in the killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland. BART policeman Johannes Meserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter—a verdict that was seen by some as a slap on the wrist.

It’s unfortunate that these very public issues start to define the racial issue in America, because the reality behind race relations is nuanced and complex.

First, consider this. It’s risky for an aging white Baby Boomer like me to even weigh in on the subject. After all, white privilege is hardly imagined, and I’ll never know what it’s like to step out into the world in dark skin that can’t be removed—ever. Especially here in Santa Cruz.

For example, did you ever notice at any kind of government or neighborhood meeting in Santa Cruz that there are, at most, one or two black faces? Even in a population with an increase in Latinos, most public events here in town are remarkably white.

Racial issues, frankly, are easy to ignore if you’re white and live in Santa Cruz. That’s no one’s fault, really, and it’s not going to change anytime soon.

Years ago I attended a newspaper editors’ seminar in which a presenter discussed ways of diversifying management in the newsroom to better reflect a diverse population. A good-hearted editor from Idaho raised his hand and asked for specific advice from the discussion leader, a black man from New York. “I would love to have more diversity on my staff,” the Idahoan said.

“Well, I’ll be honest,” said the presenter. “We ain’t going to Idaho.”

I shared that story once with the late Tony Hill, a community leader and probably the wisest observers of race relations that I ever knew. It was he who once challenged an audience of 300 or so Santa Cruz business leaders: “Next time you’re at an event and you don’t see anyone of a different race, I want you to ask yourself ‘Why?’”

Tony died a year before Obama’s improbable run for president, and I’ve often wondered how he would have reacted. Like most perceptive people, he responded to events in unexpected ways, but I’ve guessed that his reaction would have been a kind of muted celebration. “This was great, but there’s still work to do” might be close.

Polling about racism remains sharply divided between white and black. There are some similarities: about three in 10 of all races acknowledge their own racial prejudice. But from there, the differences are stark. According to a recent Washington Post poll, slightly more than half of white Americans see race relations as basically good—and improving. Six in 10 African Americans say race relations are either “not so good” or “poor.” That same poll, however, said that nine out of 10 whites would be comfortable with a black president.

But I’m not sure that poll numbers tell a true story. What I notice, here in Santa Cruz and elsewhere, is that no one wants to talk about race. There’s no percentage in it for whites, blacks, Latinos or multiracial folks. I know that whites fear being labeled as racist. I can only guess about non-whites, but that guess is that most people don’t want to be labeled as whiners so they just keep quiet about most of their grievances.

So the only time that race really comes up in our public discussion is when a trial like the Meserle case happens, or when there’s some sort of riotous reaction. Unfortunately, those discussions are rarely illuminating. It is possible, after all, that an involuntary manslaughter charge was appropriate, even if there is such a thing as institutional racism in our criminal justice system.

One might wish that electing a black president was all America needed to do to address the complexities of race. Obviously, that’s not the case.


Contact Tom Honig at gmail.com. Send comments on this article to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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Terrorism
written by Lorene Garrett-Browder, August 01, 2010
Many who came to America seeking religious and political freedom are now practicing the oppression and terror that they escaped. Those who were brought to American in irons and chains, as indentured servants and to work the railroads became the targets of hate-filled laws and hate-filled people. Many of us have forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants except for the Native American whose lands were taken. Many of us continue to struggle with laws that do not see us or understand us and in many cases don’t care to.

As a country we take pride in the democratic achievements and struggles for independence in America, but we must also address the inhumane past and present of our history. We must address how our past and present history scapegoats, blames, ignores, denies and victimizes many of our citizens. As a county and as a people we have terrorized, and denied freedoms for many of our citizens, but we don’t want to be called terrorist or racist or held accountable for the injustices of our history. Those who perpetrate terrorism want to be able to deny that they are terrorist or racist, but continue to terrorize and dominate others.

We know that history is currently written with omissions, distortions and deletions that only give half a picture of our entire history. The parts of our history that don’t make us feel uncomfortable. Our history must include the entirety of all our citizens’ contributions, the events we take pride in and the events that cause us to rethink our humanity. This will then be a truthful account to all our children of what has really taken place in our history, and in their history, as well as what we must do to improve individually and as a country.

In addressing the injustices of the past we can begin to change the injustices of the present. We must address the individuals that fled England for religious freedom, the uprooting and taking of Native American’s lands, when African Americans were sold as property, how Protestants treated the first Irish immigrants, how Chinese Americans were brought to American to work on the railroads for low wages, anti-Jewish sentiment in America, discrimination toward Mexican and Spanish speaking individuals, the emergence of the Klan, the placement of Japanese Americans in internment camps, anti gay and lesbian sentiment and the continuing hostility between ethnic groups. We cannot ignore these events in our history. We carry the energy of these events within us and they cannot be rationalized away. We must be accountable, and hold others accountable. We must be outraged when violence and terrorism happens, and we must give voice to this outrage.

Racism, the word that we don’t want to acknowledge or talk about; we fear it, we make jokes about it, we deny it, we are uncomfortable with it, we accuse because of it, we blame because of it, we victimize because of it and we shift our attention because of it. We make excuses about racism by saying, “that was the past”, “I didn’t do it”, “they are always using race”. We minimize, we don’t listen and we distort. We state how intolerable the Klan, Skinheads and Farrakhan are, but don’t realize how racism and terrorism is played out everyday by, “well meaning people” in the media, in communities, in churches, in schools, in families, in organizations, and in the workplace, we just don’t always hear about them.

Therefore if we are discussing as a country whether to profile certain groups, and people coming from other countries, should we not profile white people too? Let’s not forget our history and Timothy McVeigh among many others. To those who say that they want their America back, I ask what America are you speaking of. And to those who want to rewrite history, I ask for what purpose, and to those who want to undo the civil rights movement’s achievements. I say that you will try, but there are many of us who remember what America was like before the civil rights movement.

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