Friday, May 15, 2015

Changing face of racism demands a conversation

By Ted Furlow, Director
Department of Planning

“Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, and try to love one another right now.”

These words from a 1960’s rock song by the Youngbloods seem relevant once again after Starbucks’ recently failed, and widely publicized, attempt to generate a dialogue about race.

Being socially engineered about race relationships while getting a Mocha Frappuccino may not be your thing, but can’t someone start a dialogue about race without being pilloried for it?

If you filter out the sarcastically humorous responses to the Starbucks’ initiative, the vitriolic response alone makes one wonder why we don’t like talking about this issue. It is a difficult topic to discuss, and while there is an ever present risk of misspeaking and being labeled insensitive or racist, I have been listening to the rising tenor of race intolerance over the last two years and wondering if we have become tone deaf to what is still right in front of us.

There used to be a shopping list of “old school” pejoratives for racial and ethnic cheap shots directed against Irish, Italians, Jews, Latinos, Poles, and even Catholics. If you say them today you might just get a blank stare, so perhaps the fact that most of these obnoxious references have disappeared from the lexicon is cause to celebrate some progress.

I am thinking… not so fast. After the violence, sacrifice, and pain of the Civil Rights Movement in the second half of the 20th Century, I wonder how far we have really come from Selma. Steven Holmes, writing for CNN, explored the topic, and offered that a reduction of ethnic slurs doesn’t necessarily mean that our society has rid itself of prejudice. It would be nice to think that we are motivated by what is socially, religiously, and morally right, but as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League notes in Holmes article, “These are hard, hard bigoted words. There are consequences for their use, social and political consequences, and commercial consequences.” Misspeak, pop-off, or just let it all hang out at the wrong time, and you can lose your job, your business, or your place at the table.

I grew up in a southern family, and the n-word was not uncommon in our household. I was the only one not born in the south, I am Californian through and through, so I never fully assimilated the racial attitudes owned by the rest of my family. As a young boy, I met an associate of my father; he was an engineer at a mine in the mountains of the Owens Valley. He was a rangy, tall, outdoorsy, ex-paratrooper dude, and I was fascinated with him, except that he had a huge black Labrador dog that he called… well you know.

Growing up I remember being uncomfortable, not only with the reference but with the word itself. While Holmes notes in his article a retrieval of it in contemporary African-American dialogue, as a “seventy something” white male I don’t use it …nor do I use those other forms of bigoted speech. I changed because I grew up and began to meet people of varied ethnic and racial origin, and they had an impact on my life. They were people that I played sports with, went to school with, worked with, socialized with, laughed with, and they changed the way that I saw the world. Two of the most influential men in my life were an African-American and a Hispanic who taught me as a teenager, the common sense of how to work and how to think. Many of the personal traits that govern my day-to-day interactions come from the experience that I had working with these two exceptional men.

Words are powerful and while most of the bigoted speech that I allude to has been driven out of our public and private conversations; there is a whole a new generation of slurs to take their place. “Terrorist” is code for anyone who looks Arabic or is Islamic, “illegal” is for anyone who looks Hispanic, and “thug” is for any young black man. The list unfortunately goes on.

By using these seemingly innocuous terms you may hope to dodge the claim of being a racist or a bigot, but it is an illusion. Everyone knows what you are talking about, what you mean when use them, and what it makes you when you say them.

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