At one time or another, we have all felt the weights of prejudice, oppression and injustice in our lives. For most of us, these experiences are intermittent or transitory. Most likely you have had a teacher or two who you felt unfairly singled you out. Most likely, you were at least once the victim of a school bully. You may have had a toxic boss who unfairly took out his personal animosities on you.
Some forms of prejudice and oppression never wholly go away. Perhaps the most broadly experienced across society is obesity discrimination. If you are morbidly obese in America, you are frequently looked down upon. People do not want to sit next to you in airplanes. They often think that obesity is wholly related to lack of will, as if genetic predisposition toward obesity, such as runs in my wife’s family, did not exist. You would be hard-pressed to find a morbidly obese politician. Their chances of being elected are minute, no matter how eloquent they may be.
Discrimination, subtle or overt is all around us and we have all felt it in one for or another. Now let’s talk about racial discrimination. Many, maybe most White Americans are upset because they have been hearing and seeing snippets from the sermons from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s preacher. Many are getting hot under the collar. How could this man of the cloth call on God to damn America? Doesn’t he know that God is pro-American? How could he express it with such fervor? Why, they wonder, would a politician like Obama even associate with such a man? Doesn’t this imply that Barack Obama also thinks that God should damn America?
For many of us in White America, racial discrimination is yesterday’s news. The law has outlawed discrimination we say. If a dwindling minority of us are going to be bigots, well, that’s their business and we sure do not condone it. The rest of us White Americans, well, we are in the post-discrimination age. Therefore, it behooves African Americans to be where we already claim to be. If they just believe they are not oppressed, as we believe, then soon they will be enjoying the full fruits of this free society. All they have to do is get this chip about being born black in America off their shoulder. They need to show their moxie, like Colin Powell. They need to act, well, a lot more white.
The reason many of us white Americans feel this way is because discrimination for us tends to be an occasional thing. It is not persistent. It is rarely overt and even more rarely covert. We generally navigate okay because we are part of the tribe, of the mainstream. It is quite a different thing when discrimination is a lifelong phenomenon. African Americans know this. Other minorities experience it too, including Latino Americans and homosexuals. Yet for some reason, many of us in White America are clueless.
Discrimination is about driving down the interstate and being frequently pulled over by white state troopers because you are black. It’s about having this creepy feeling, often borne out by evidence, that you are being watched by store security. It is about going to job interviews, getting a kind of absent look from your interviewer and finding repeatedly that for some strange reason the white person got the job. For older African Americans like Jeremiah Wright, there are persistent memories of growing up and having to sit in the back of the bus, not being allowed to drink from “white” water fountains and being called “boy” by whites even when you were a man. It is about being discriminated against, not just for being black, but also for having a “black attitude”. It’s about the naiveté of white Americans who think that because some laws have been changed that African Americans are supposed to put aside the oppression that they felt through much of their life, just like that!
White Americans don’t know or don’t acknowledge the very real discrimination that is still happening. It happens most overtly in our schools. Communities with lower property values have less money to fund the schools. African Americans disproportionately live in these communities because they cannot afford nicer neighborhoods. Even in places where there is plenty of money for the schools (and Washington D.C. comes to mind) the schools are saddled with a dysfunctional bureaucracy that outlasts mayors repeated attempts to rectify things. Even if relatively well moneyed school districts like Washington D.C. could attract the best and the brightest teachers, they generally still do not want to teach there. Why? Well, the crime rates are high. The schools are dysfunctional. Many of the students are dysfunctional. They live disproportionately in single parent household where the parent (generally the Mom) is working two or three jobs to make ends meet. Why deal with it? The wealthier suburbs offer more money, better working conditions and their students are a lot less likely to go postal. That is because their students have a mother and a father at home, and their parents are involved in the local PTA.
When a state legislator suggests that school funding should be equal across the state, such attempts quickly shot down. We get a variant of the states rights arguments used for generations to oppress blacks. It is about local people having the right to decide local issues, we are told. Let’s forget that the effect of this policy means that some children get a more equal education than others. Therefore, the cycle continues for another generation. White America shakes their heads at Black America and does not understand why they just cannot pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, even though their bootstraps are still being held down. In reality, the playing field is not close to equal.
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright spoke to a pain and a stark reality that is obvious to his African American congregation. If America were truly a land of equal opportunity, there would be no reason for him to call for God to damn America. Would any White American willfully choose to change lives with a typical Black American for a decade? I doubt it. Because in truth we know that African Americans get a pretty raw deal. We know we could act white all we wanted, but we would still be discriminated in ways both overt and pernicious because of the color of our skin. It would not be by just a handful of crazy people, but by many people every day of our lives. For starts, we had better take the bus instead of trying to hail that cab.
We are asking African Americans to be like us even though the environment we provide is only partially welcoming to them. Burdened with much more baggage than most of us in White America, we somehow expect them all to soar toward the stratosphere, though most of us fail in this endeavor. In reality, this attitude shows our appalling naivety.
As Barack Obama has said, America claims to be the land of equal privilege and responsibility. The reality is that we are a long way from being there. The attitudes of White Americans, expressed in our vilification of Rev. Wright, shows just how large this gap actually is.
We should be reaching out in compassion to suffering souls like Rev. Wright, rather than condemning him. Jesus stepped outside his tribe. He hung out with beggars, lepers and prostitutes. In doing so, he learned about their suffering. The Buddha also had this experience and it changed his life. Reverend Wright’s words are evidence of a huge gaping psychological wound in our country. He speaks for many millions. All Barack Obama has asked of us is to have an honest discussion on the reality of race in America today. His remarkable speech was a first step in this discourse. Until we confront this pain, which affects all races, we will be like Sisyphus, doomed to keep repeating the same pointless mistakes into future generations.