Thousands of scholars and millions of citizens will tell you, with an arrogant scoff of intellectual superiority, that the 1960s were the greatest era of civil rights. That they were and forever will be the most defining years for race relations in the United States. With unabashed confidence, I profoundly disagree. The most influential years, the ones that will characterize race relations in America forever, are ahead. Race may be, albeit quietly, as much of a problem today as it ever was. But a rapidly evolving political landscape may force us to evaluate ourselves sooner, rather than later. The book on race in America might just be nearing a critical climax, at a point when most of us had put it back on the shelf.
We live in the golden age of political correctness, where honesty is demonized for its indecency and vague neutrality is praised for its compassion. But, seeping through the holes of double-speak, that masks the raw emotion we aren’t allowed to show, are those deep-seeded feelings about race that we all knowingly possess. Among the fray of sentiment are anger, envy, retribution, and hatred. Even through the watered down rhetoric toward ‘controversial’ topics, such as race, glimpses of unrefined feelings can be found, but only by those willing to look.
Some thought, and still think, that the racial problem in America was solved with the adoption of the 14th Amendment or the implementation of Affirmative Action. After all, they were the great ‘equalizers’ of society. This, though, was an inherently open-ended conclusion to draw, for the definition of equality is so generally relative. Are we all equal spiritually? Emotionally? Politically? Physically? What? I can look at any one of those explanations with serious objection. For example, I am not physically equal to a pro athlete or politically equal to a U.S. Congressman. But, I am not bitter about it. People have different strengths and weaknesses. That is what makes them unique individuals.
Nonetheless, Affirmative Action and its associates have done little to improve the underlying racial sentiments in this country. In reality, they may have done more to fuel the fire than put it out. They have proliferated the cultural phenomenon known as ‘reverse racism.’ While I acknowledge the existence of the trend, I take issue with the term itself. Racism is racism is racism. Referring to white on minority discrimination as ‘racism’ and minority on white discrimination as ‘reverse racism’ is mildly racist in itself. Why, even, should there be a racial distinction? Is that not counterproductive to a goal of a colorblind society?
Barack Obama’s appointment of Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, has put the issue of race under the microscope once again, and put a mirror up to the face of America. Without a single word spoken, the speculation of her appointment stirred up racial questions. Will he choose a Hispanic? Will he choose a Hispanic woman? Is he doing it to solidify the Hispanic vote? Will it solidify the Hispanic vote? Then, she was appointed. Now we know where she went to school, what her record looks like, everything she’s done and all she’s ever verifiably said.
Among her most controversial resume bullet points was a 2008 ruling against a group of Connecticut firefighters who were denied promotions based on race. The firefighters, who were white, were the top scorers on a promotional exam. Because no black firefighters achieved qualifying test scores, the city threw out the tests completely. Sotomayor and two colleagues backed the city’s decision. And in a 2001 speech at U.C. Berkeley, Sotomayor stated ‘I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.’
Not surprisingly, the comments and rulings conjured up strong feelings on both sides of the issue. Some conservatives called her comments ‘racist.’ Then, some liberals called conservatives ‘racists’ for calling her comments ‘racist.’
For the sake of argument, let’s build a foundation. Racism is defined as ‘discrimination or prejudice based on race.’ Liberals and conservatives, majorities and minorities, one fish, two fish, red fish and blue fish would all reasonably agree. Now, that sounds a whole lot like the actions and words of a certain Sonia Sotomayor. First, she denies whites a promotion because no blacks qualified, even though they were all given the same standardized test. So, from my humble perspective, the only determining factor in the decision was skin color. Discrimination based on race? Just maybe? Then, she proclaims that a Latina woman can make better decisions than can a white male because all Latina women have rich life experiences that are not possibly had by white men. Prejudice based on race? Possibly? Looks that way. Or maybe she thought the dictionary was an instruction manual, not a reference book. But, then again, I’m just a white male who hasn’t had experience necessary to make that kind of distinction.
So, when white men, like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, call her actions and words what they plainly are, they are heralded for speaking the truth. Aren’t they? Nope! Instead, they are accused of racism because they are criticizing a Latina woman. Calling her words and actions ‘racist’ is seen as sacrilege of Affirmative Action. Plus, minorities can’t be racist. Remember?
And there lies my issue. We are not a ‘post-racial’ society. We are not past the most significant racial problems America will ever see. Have we come a long way? Sure we have. Have we benefitted from contributions and sacrifices made by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr.? Absolutely. But King sought a society where men and women are judged ‘not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’ And, obviously, we are still judged by the color of our skin. Just ask the qualified firefighters who were denied a rightful promotion because they didn’t meet the skin tone requirements for the position. Or the white men who will never get to make the sound decisions of Latina women, because they were not born with enough melanin.
I am not discrediting those who have suffered through decades of discrimination and prejudice, with the hopes that the next generation will not have to. Nor am I ignorant of the horrific atrocities that occurred in the name of race in our country. But, so many in America seem to believe that it is all in the past, that true discrimination just doesn’t happen anymore. On the contrary, it happens every day, and much of it is legal. Racism may look different than it did in the early 20th century (and before), often with different victims and offenders, but it is the same beast.
The unfounded racial hatred responsible for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is the same hatred responsible for the ethnic cleansing during WWII. The discrimination that once denied blacks education in the south is the same discrimination that denied firefighters a promotion in Connecticut just last year. Whether it be minority on white, white on minority, minority on minority, or white on white, widespread discrimination exists. The day we move beyond that, in law and society, is the day we can claim the greatest victory for civil rights.