Anger and racism in America

Racist tropes illustrated in a frame from an early Disney cartoon

In his lengthy speech about race and politics, candidate Barack Obama made a point of distancing himself from the historical anger of racism, choosing instead to focus upon reconciliation and acceptance. He challenged us to shift our view, though he fully acknowledged the legitimate bitterness and disappointment felt by so many for so long when it comes to racism in America.

With one out of every fifteen black men currently incarcerated in American prisons, drug sentencing rules that impose higher penalties on crack cocaine than powdered, enormous unemployment within black communities and fewer opportunities for higher education and quality jobs, African-Americans have cause to feel bitter. These problems notwithstanding, members of the black community have nonetheless extricated themselves from the cycle of poverty, unemployment and incarceration, and Senator Obama himself provides ample evidence of the power of the individual to overcome obstacles.

America’s racism is deeply historical and so embedded within our culture that its continued presence is often virtually transparent and therefore easily denied. Author Derrick Jensen, in his monumental work “The Culture of Make Believe” provides insight into America’s transparent racism by tracing its lengthy historical roots, and the ways in which it manifests both subtly and overtly. By transparency, Jensen means an ongoing aspect of culture that affects us and our behavior, but of which we are not conscious. In that sense, transparent racism is akin to the subconscious, affecting our feelings and actions without our direct awareness. It is this transparent quality that allows the expression of racist and bigoted statements to be made by some so shamelessly in public, as if they are widely accepted truths.

Linguistically, our Western culture embeds values and meaning into matters of color itself. We speak of black-hearted evil villains. Heroes wear white and have hearts as pure as snow. Cowards are “yellow,” we don’t like “brown-noses” and Darth Vader implores Luke Skywaker to join him on “the dark side.” While we cannot avoid our idiomatic linguistic conventions, we should recognize both our cultural color biases and the ways in which such embedded psychological meaning mediates and influences our perceptions and opinions of others.

Europe’s sordid 400-year history of black slavery and its incorporation into the Constitution and economy of the emerging American nation, the systematic annihilation and organized genocide of the “red-skinned” Native American peoples, the centuries-long exploitation and degradation imposed upon the immigrant “yellow races” of Asia, and the continuous inflictions of bias against the “brown” people from Central and South America are more than just sidebars in elementary school American history textbooks. These facts of depredation represent the workings of a deep-seated racism that has stained the very fabric of American culture.

Senator Obama spoke of his personal experience of growing up with overt and transparent racism. He spoke of the anger and racism of his church’s black preacher as well as the prejudice of his white grandmother. Though some react to the exposure of our unattractive inner selves with denial, anger or dismissal, for others the window to understanding our own deep-seated bigotry begins to open. As such, his thoughtful and reasoned speech was a courageous, unique and meaningful event in American political life. Whatever the Democratic primary outcome, Barack Obama has rightfully earned his place in U.S. history.