Our place in history ...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

May all who read these words refuse silence and inaction...

The criticism I receive from others for my views on race usually involve dismissive remarks about my appearance: When I lived in the African American Studies, and Native American Studies residence halls at Dartmouth, some would say, "You're not black," or "Your great grandmother might have been indigenous, but you're white." Before college, and every year since, every week of my life has involved some sort of comment about how I, "don't look Mexican," like my father.

Despite the fact that I do enjoy all of the privileges of light skin, of being a straight man, with an education, who now belongs to the middle class, and is not considered to be either underage or overweight, the prejudices of others have impacted certain aspects of my life and certain situational outcomes.

In high school I punched a student because he said, "You should thank God you're not a sh*t brown, greasy, fugly, taco sh*tt*ng border n*gg*r, wetback, beaner." I was suspended for my act of violence. But nothing happened to him. In graduate school I was physically attacked by a classmate following a heated discussion over the article "Dusty Baker Exposed," (The Justice, Brandeis University, October 21, 2003). The campus officer who took my statement did not believe that the student who attacked me made derogative remarks about my heritage, and then in the same breath made a series of comments about how my appearance did not match my name. Despite the fact that I never lifted a finger in my defense, the campus officers, the Dean, and the majority of the white students in my class, decided that both my attacker and I were, "equally responsible" for what occurred. And despite his act of violence, nothing happened to him.

Over the last decade, cops who have pulled me over in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Illinois, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California, have made cracks about my name, and in an impolite manner, asked me where I'm, "from," despite the fact that they are holding my valid, current address, CA driver's license in their hands. They knew exactly where I was from. What interested them was knowing my precise racial/ethnic origin, so they knew what prejudice to call forth. (Don't even get me started with problems I've had with INS/Homeland Security personnel in their offices, as well as at airports, and border crossings).

For this reason, I highly doubt the veracity of the claims made by the officers that arrested Harvard Professor, Henry Louis Gates. If Professor Gates made any statements protesting the actions or words of the officers who expected him to produce his ID and step outside of his home, he was justified in making them. It is empirically incontrovertible that if Professor Gates had not been a person of color, the officer would have primarily asked him if he was ok, if he was injured or threatened by the robbers, and then asked him to give a statement as a witness to the breaking and entering complaint. But the fact that Professor Gates is a person of color meant quite simply and unequivocally that the officer primarily expected proof that he was not the robber. In other words, because he is black, Professor Gates was not worthy of the officer's empathetic concern. He could have been injured. He could have been threatened. None of that mattered as much as the color of his skin.

The fact that the arrest of Professor Gates follows the story of the black and Latino children in Philadelphia turned away from a swimming pool, and the story of the historically African American cemetery outside of Chicago where Emmett Till is buried, that was desecrated by some men who thought they could simply dig up bodies, dump them in a refuse pile and resell the plots, is probably one of the reasons why I am unleashing this unedited rant on the Facebook universe. But in as calm and rational and reasonable a way I can possibly muster, let me say this:

All the members of our society are expected to uphold certain codes of community. Every individual, organization, office, department, and institutional entity comprising the government is especially compelled to aver standards of inclusiveness and sensitivity, as well as champion the principles of justice and truth unto its innermost parts. While it is obvious that those responsible for the arrest of Professor Gates are in violation of some element of these codes, standards, and principles, it should be equally blatant that we are all to blame if proactive responses to this incident do not eclipse reactive ones. In other words, this is not just Professor Gates' problem, not just the City of Cambridge's problem, not just a problem impacting people of color...

Once the debate over this particular story ends, the lion's share of real work begins. All mission statements, charters, guidelines, structures, and day-to-day operational elements defining our living, learning, working, and public environments must be scrutinized. If the codes, standards, and principles of freedom, equality, and justice are not palpable throughout, then changes must be made.

An egalitarian society is achieved when all are equally responsible for engendering it. When the burden of opposing racism, sexism, heterosexism, ethnocentrism, classism, and similar forms of assumption-driven discrimination, is primarily borne by those most affected by inequality, injustice, etc., we are all placed at risk for degradation. If the members of traditionally marginalized populations represent the foremost voices to thoroughly and consistently address issues rooted in, or related to, legacies of prejudice, it will be difficult for the nation to overcome widespread feelings of tremendous anger, shame, resentment, and humiliation.

In other words, it is good that Rachel Maddow, took the time to disprove Pat Buchanan's claims that white men built the United States. And it is good that not only black men are outraged by Professor Gates' arrest. And it is good that the outrage over what happened to those children at that pool in Philadelphia is felt by more than African Americans and Latinos. But we cannot relent. More voices are needed. Every state with a ban on same sex marriage is the problem of every citizen of the United States, whether gay or straight. The high school drop out crisis is the problem of every American, whether an adolescent or a senior, whether wealthy or working class, whether college educated or functionally illiterate. A lack of healthcare, a lack of employment, the loss of a home, these are problems that behoove all of us to get involved. We must all act as advocates, whether or not we are personally impacted. Life may not be fair. But we can be...

"Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be a s big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings."
- John F. Kennedy -


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