So, there's a story on WBAL's morning show today about an Owen Brown family who are the apparent victims of racially- based harrassment. Specifically, chicken buckets and bones have been thrown on their yard, and a letter "N" has been burned into their backyard with some sort of chemical.
Yesterday, I went with my family to Philadelphia, to take in some local culture and cuisine (Pat's Steaks rocks!) and to go to a Phillies game with a college friend of mine. While we were leaving the ballpark, a group of 3-4 black teenagers, one sporting a mohawk, walked by us, from behind us, we heard a voice say "Hey kid, nice haircut." We all turned around and saw the boy with the mohawk respond with a harsh glance, and then a smile. The guy who'd called out the black youth's hair was tall, thin, white, with a couple friends-- and had the same hairstyle.
Why do people respond to race issues with such sensitivity? As a correlation, why are we so sensitive to such issues? Shouldn't we, in this time in this country especially, be moving past this?
I am not writing to argue any specific points of either of these things I've noticed, or to weigh on on the Henry Louis Gates situation, etc. But to note that when even the President of the United States is moved by this issue to react as strongly as he did-- and as many would say, and he has basically admitted, overreact-- it is clear that we are still a country coming to grips with our diversity.
I do feel that a lot of the hypersensitivity is driven by our economy. A strong tide lifts all boats and for the last year or so, our economic tide has ebbed. Therefore, the desire we all have to "look out for ourselves" becomes magnified. And in this need to watch out for oneself, one looks toward taking care of family first, then friends. To the extent that in the majority of individuals, their social circle is predominated by members of their own ethnic group, this self-interest becomes race-driven. Does such behavior exhibit bias? In the pure sense of the word, yes. But does it demonstrate prejudice? I'm not so sure I'd say that it does.
What it does do is bring a bright light to a basic flaw in American society-- the failure of our culture to put common interest above self-interest. It's not that we as Americans haven't experienced times of great common interest and shared sacrifice-- we have, and although trying times, these times have brought people together and petty issues were put aside. But such is not our nature. Not at this time.
So, we're in a bad economic period, people are losing jobs, many millions more are afraid to spend money for fear they'll be the next to go, we have not experienced such times in 75 years-- what do we do? One course of action is to succumb to fear. And that is manifested in acting out against those who aren't like "us". And that manifestation can be so very subtle, or it can be more acute-- like burning a letter "N" into the yard of a young black family. It could be even worse.
But another course of action is to respond with hope, and with spirits and heads held high. Another course of action is to realize that in these unprecedented times, unprecedented courage and compassion are needed. This requires an acknowledgment of our shared peril, as well as of our shared glory when we succeed. Such actions can be small as well as great-- such as a shared joke between two total strangers about their common haircut.
In one puny blog post in Howard County, we will not solve an issue which has bedeviled American society for hundreds of years. But the underlying point of everything I've written here is that-- while we all endure these times, we have to remember to take care of each other. Just as we did in other trying times throughout our history. Because if we don't, we won't like ourselves when we come out on the other side, and in fact, we may create as a people, a society with wounds that can not be closed.