Saturday, July 24, 2010

Straight Talk On Race

The issue of race and racism in America is a painfully uncomfortable subject for both blacks and whites.  Therefore no one is willing to honestly address it. President Bill Clinton tried to approach the subject when he appointed John Hope Franklin as his administration Race Czar but, this well intended objective on the part of President Clinton turned out to be just another failure in the attempt to heal America of its racial strives. Blacks and whites continue to engage in polite and superficial relationships whereby we don’t communicate honestly with each other on the subject of race.  We are afraid to be honest in our communication because, we don’t want to offend each other with the comfortableness of the race issue.  We keep up this façade until something happens like the Shirley Sherrod debacle and then all hell breaks loose. 
Shirley Sherrod, the most recent collateral sufferer in this ongoing race war, was a longtime employee of the United States Department of Agriculture where she was tasked with providing help to distressed farmers in Georgia who were at risk of losing their farms.  Ms. Sherrod was prematurely and improperly forced to resign from her job due to claims that she is racist against white farmers in Georgia.  These claims were found to be false, but this was after the damage was already done.  Ms. Sherrod was an unwitting victim of a war alleging racism between the Tea Party and the NAACP.  The Tea Party Movement, which has become a formidable power in the political process here in the United States, have been plagued with claims of racism, especially, since a reported incident that alleged to have occurred during a March on Washington, DC on September 12, 2009.  During this March, members of the Tea Party Movement were alleged to have hurled racial epithets at black congress members.  One black congressman reported being spat on by a member of the Tea Party during this melee.  The Tea Party has denied these claims.  Andrew Breitbart, who is described as a conservative blogger, is reported to have been very vocal in trying to dispute claims that Tea Party members are racists.  He reportedly offered a reward for videotape footage of the alleged September 12, 2009 incident.  However, no videotaped evidence of the allegations was revealed.  Therefore, Mr. Breitbart asserts that the lack of such proof demonstrates that the reported incidents did not occur. 
On July 14, 2010, the NAACP voted for a resolution to repudiate the Tea Party for being a racist organization.  This resolution by the NAACP infuriated members of the Tea Party Movement and prompted Tea Party supporters to fight back against the NAACP.  Ms. Shirley Sherrod became a weapon in this fight when Andrew Breitbart edited a videotape speech that she made at an NAACP event to indict the NAACP on racism.  This doctored video clip was posted on Mr. Breitbart’s website on July 19th and it was immediately picked up the Fox news and other networks.  According to numerous reports, Ms. Sherrod was ordered on that very same day that the networks picked up the story, via text messaging from the Obama Administration, to immediately resign her post with the Department of Agriculture.  It later turned out that the video was doctored and that Ms. Sherrod was not guilty of being a racist.  The Obama Administration and the NAACP had egg all over their faces because they treated Ms. Sherrod as a suspect who was guilty until she was proven innocent.  This treatment of Ms. Sherrod by the Obama Administration has opened up new wounds in the already heated and tense race relations here in the United States.  Many African Americans contend that Ms. Sherrod was not offered the same protection under the United States Constitutions of “being innocent until proven guilty.”  They feel that this treatment is consistent with the “Second Class” citizenship that African Americans appear to hold here in the United States.
Despite being a leader in world issues, America is seriously behind other third world countries when it comes to dealing with issues of race and racism.  Growing up in the St. Vincent and the Grenadines, I have never experienced any of the racial attitudes, with which I have been confronted here in the United States.  As I have mentioned time and time again, my mother was the child of an Irishman and a black woman.  My father was the child of an Irishwoman and a Portuguese man. Although my parents have obvious differences in their skin colors, it was never a focus.  The differences in their skin colors were similar to the differences in the shapes of their noses.  As Caribbean people, we obtain our identity from the nation. Therefore, I would be defined as “a Vincentian” because, I was born in country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines while someone who was born in Jamaica would be defined as a Jamaican.  There are Jamaicans and Vincentians of Caucasian ancestry as well as Jamaicans and Vincentians of African Ancestry.  Then there are people, like myself who derived from multiple ethnic groups.  Race and ethnicity is not a dominant factor in our daily relationships.  Relationships are established based on Socio-economic factors rather than race and ethnicity.  However, I would not incur strange stares from individuals if I were to tell them that I have two Irish grandparents and one Portuguese grandparent.  They can look at me and tell that I am “mixed,” but the bottom-line is no one really cares about that.
If America is serious about improving race relations, blacks and whites will need to start engaging in honest conversations about issues of race.  Both white people and black people must be able to talk about their feelings honestly with each other without an explosion.  Like American blacks, Caribbean blacks were also subject to slavery.  However, some argue that slavery in the Caribbean was not as harsh.  I will not attempt to debate this issue because each individual react to any given experience differently and I will not try to make light of anyone’s suffering.  I do believe, however, that Caribbean blacks may have been able to move on because many were able to empower themselves socially and economically.  I suspect that some of the disparate treatment that blacks in America endure due to lower socio-economy status may have more to do with their inability to overcome some of the pain that slavery and its residue have caused.  The continued denial of opportunities to them is somewhat like pouring salt into an open wound.  Some blacks are careful about honestly speaking about their hurt feelings because they do not want to offend.  Some whites become offended anytime blacks mention the word slavery.  They seem to feel that blacks are labeling them as racists. However, because the subject is “explosive” they would rather resort to subtle hostility rather than open confrontation of the issue.  In communication, we are taught that often the way the message is received by the listener is not how it was intended by the speaker.  But with the issue of race, since we are not willing to dialogue, we are just left with our assumptions which are often erroneous.  As a black individual, I may ask an all white group if they have any black members not because I am accusing the members of being racists, but because I am interested in finding someone who might share my cultural experiences. I think we can all agree that no slave master or slave is alive today.  Therefore, whites should not feel any personal guilt for slavery as blacks shouldn’t feel any personal shame.  Yes, we must admit that slavery was destructive to African people.  It took them from their homeland into a foreign land and as a result they suffered many losses.  It is unfortunate that it happened, but it is over and we must learn to get past it.  The process of getting past it will require that we talk openly about it without people becoming offended.  Psychologists encourage victims of traumatic experiences such as rapes and other horrible traumas to empower themselves by talking about it.  Blacks are going to have to talk about it so that they can get it out of their systems and heal themselves.  Whites must understand that when blacks talk about slavery, they are not assigning blame to them.  We know that none of the white people alive today owned slaves.   Some of your ancestors came here after slavery was abolished, and for those whose ancestors owned slaves, you bear no blame in the game.
 Some blacks may argue that some white people today benefited economical from their white ancestors’ enslavement of their black ancestors.  To you, I would say with all due respect, this maybe the case, but you ought to move on.  The British and other colonial empires reaped all of the economic resources from the Caribbean Islands and then they walked away.  One of the principles that we learn early in life is “life is not fair,” but we must always work towards making it a little fairer.  My grandfather who was Portuguese had a great amount of wealth.  Some of this wealth was bequeathed to his children, including my father.  I don’t know if some of my grandfather’s wealth was derived from slavery.  It could have, but the truth is, it does not concern me.  None of us could go back into history and change anything about it.  We must use the lessons of the past to ensure that we do not repeat the same mistakes as we move forward to the future.  In America, there are really two groups of people, “the haves” and the “have not.”  As Shirley Sherrod discovered, poor white people and poor black people have a lot in common.  They are all struggling to put food on their tables and to survive.  The issue of race is a surface distracter which keeps us divided while the rich continues to get richer and the poor continues to die.  It is high time for us as Americans to reach out to our neighbors and embrace our commonalities while respecting our differences.   

Helena R Edwards