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Some Thoughts on Race, Difference, and Discrimination

Started by Austin McCoy, October 18, 2007, 03:57:56 pm

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Austin McCoy

Some Thoughts on Race and Difference...

My friend Kristen Traynor asked me to respond to a few questions for a paper for class. I thought, in light of the recent developments in American race relations, that I would distribute my responses to continue the conversation.

1. What was your reaction to the Jena Six situation?

The Jena Six affair just reinforced the polarization of the American public regarding the issues of race and difference. On one hand there are many people who believe the young men deserved to be punished just because they committed this act. On the other hand, there are many people, like myself, who believe that one cannot observe this issue in a vacuum. Yes, the act was inappropriate. But, the altercation was the culmination of prior events and the missed and botched opportunities of the Jena community to adequately respond to the heightened racial tension. Again, in this case, it would have been best for the kids not to resort to violence, but who can say how easy it would have been to do so in that type of atmosphere? The nooses were hung to warn black youth about sitting underneath a tree. A group of black kids were charged with a crime when they were confronted by an armed white male. Also, a young black and white male got into a physical altercation the weekend before the actual incident. And what was the community response? The noose incident was dismissed as a prank. The prosecutor threatened to end people's lives with the stroke of a pen. The young black men were arrested for theft after they had disarmed the young white male who confronted them with a firearm. Just like many of the participants in the Watts Rebellion of 1965, if justice continues to be denied, or a particular group continues to receive a disproportionate amount of the blame, they lose faith in the system and begin to act on their own behalf. In this case, and unfortunately, the young black men responded violently. Then they were charged as adults when they should not have been. I think it's very unfortunate.

Yet, despite my disappointment of how it was handled by those in the Jena community who did not think much of the mounted racial tension, it was great to see the many activists, especially radio personality Michael Baisden, as well as the concerned citizens in Jena highlight America's historical problem of effectively addressing the race question. Many people in this country believe that race does not matter since the passage of civil rights legislation and affirmative action policies during the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, in spite of these gains, the exposure of black affluence in popular culture, and the limited contact between middle-class whites and blacks in certain communities and other public institutions, race and difference continue to shape the diverse realities of all Americans. Many people still base their potential encounters or views of different people on limiting and negative stereotypes. In places thought to be more liberal like Columbus, Ohio, I've been followed in plenty of stores. Some white people look at me funny if my spoken language is not filled with the latest slang or if my pants are not hanging low enough.

This situation has also highlighted the problems of our criminal injustice system. Since the repression of the black power organizations and the "War on Drugs" during the 1970s and 1980s, black, Latino, and poor whites have been negatively affected by unfair sentencing practices. The rates of incarceration among young black men and women, however, have been higher than their Latino and poor white counterparts. Hopefully, people follow up their efforts shown during the massive protest by expanding this into a national issue.

2. Do you feel that some people feel more open to express their prejudices now in light of the incident?

It's possible. Based upon recent racially charged incidents and rumors here in Kent and the highly publicized noose hanging incident at Columbia University, it could be argued that the nooses hung on the tree in Jena were a calling card for those who may want to intimidate black and other peoples of color. Another issue is that people who want to express these views feel justified, not just by their self-righteousness, but by their disagreement with various aspects of hip hop/urban culture. Many whites and blacks feel their beliefs are warranted because they think many black and urban youth aspire to a life of crime, indiscriminately saying the "n" word, and/or disparage black (all) women.

And while some of this may occur within some black and urban communities, critics want to project their limited vision of hip hop/urban culture (and race consciousness) onto all of black Americans. This is the problem. No one wants to take neither hip hop nor the benefits that race consciousness has had for black Americans and other peoples of color in our country seriously. Violence, misogyny, homophobia, and crime were present in the United States before hip hop. Those are American problems. Many black Americans, not all, have retained a sense of race consciousness and dignity due to the constant threat of negative stereotypes, inequity, racial indifference and intimidation. Race consciousness is not meant to be synonymous with racial superiority.

In addition, no one wants to discuss how the historical backdrop in which many of these problems in the inner-city has developed. These conditions were produced during the early and mid twentieth centuries, not in a conspiratorial fashion, but through decades of federal and state action which negatively affected black communities. The suburbs, the ghettos, and the lack of opportunities within the urban neighborhoods were created by both informal discriminatory practices (white flight, unspoken housing covenants, white resistance to neighborhood integration) and formal, seemingly "race-neutral" policies (Discrimination in the acquisition of FHA mortgages, urban renewal, highway/freeway construction, unequal education funding as a result of the capital flight), not just through a group of people making bad decisions. Yes, personal responsibility is important, but it is only part of the solution.

We need a comprehensive plan. We need programs that ask everyone to seriously question how these conditions arose as well as one that asks inner-city populations to take the initiative and spearhead the effort. Underrepresented groups need a seat at the table and it's important that they realize that it is their responsibility to sit in the chair. But if we give them a chair with two legs, while ours have four, then how do we expect them to want to sit at the table? If you give them a regular chair and other people are sitting on a throne, then what do you expect to happen? They are going to do whatever it takes to buy a chair with four legs, or try to buy a larger throne to keep up--even if it means dealing drugs within their own in their communities.

3. Have you been to one of the Kent State Anti-Racism Coalition meetings or do you plan on attending?

Yes, I had the pleasure of attending the first meeting. It was nice to have a frank discussion about race for once. I would not say that we all had the same views about race and racism, but if we can identify particular goals to achieve, then we do not have to totally agree. We just have to make sure we are open to each other's differences in opinion and respect the unique experiences of all groups of people. But I'm thankful that some concerned students and faculty decided to form this group. I really admire all of them for wanting to take on such a big and complicated issue.

4. Do you think that groups like this are important to have on campus?

Yes, these groups are important to have everywhere. It's like I was telling someone earlier, we all need to learn to think of issues of race, gender, class, sex, disability, and difference in more nuanced ways. I think too many of us begin to think we know all there is to know about these categories and the experiences of different groups of people. Sometimes we become complacent and too self-righteous. My thoughts about race now are not the same as they were when I was in high school, my first years in college, and while I was at OSU. So, if I'm aware of these changes, then why do we continue to view these categories as fixed? The meanings and implications of these categories change every time there is a public development. People seem to forget--once the civil rights legislation and affirmative action policies were passed, the critics were already planning to combat it. Their plans to slow down or reverse these policies were being put into motion as the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board, when Dr. King was giving his "I Have a Dream" speech, and when President Johnson signed that legislation. If there is going to be a new antiracist movement, then the participants have to be ready to constantly act and react.

And only once we begin to think of these categories as dynamic and shifting, then we can really begin to think of pursuing a real human rights agenda. But if we do not, and we only seek to only erase difference/s in favor of the "we are all human" approach, then it is possible that many people of color, social classes, religious faiths, genders, sexual orientations, and other marginalized groups may only think of this as a self-righteous action, a program that resembles 18th, 19th, and 20th century missionary program out to extend "civilization" into regions of the African and Asian continents. We need approaches that reflect the complexities of real life, not a "human rights" imperialism that only muzzles the historical and present experiences of different groups of people.

5. Do you think it's important to start a dialogue about racism on campus (Kent State)? If so why?

I think so, because it seems that individuals within the administration--even the president--believe that taking down a sign, a mass email, and some sort of investigation of an incident constitutes justice and closure (Someone had spray painted a racial epithet on a sign near the Student Recreation Center on the weekend of September 25, also see the story "BUS Addresses Racial Tensions." While it was obviously wrong do not forget to think about where this was spray painted. I wonder if the people responsible would have spray painted something like that on a library sign.) This is just sweeping the dirt back beneath the rug. Yes, the perpetrators should be punished. But the powers that be have to ensure an environment where these acts are never repeated. They have to also act like a university is supposed to act and preserve the right of groups like the Black United Students (BUS) to have agency and address the situation in a manner they see fit, because the group in question has to have a chance to help remove the dirt from the house. If they are not allowed this chance, then they really don't have a seat at the table. And if the group does not get a chance to use the broom or sit at the table, then they may flip over the table, hit you with the broomstick, and burn down the house.

See my answer above for more regarding this question. I do not want to repeat myself.

6. As someone with a master's degree in African and African American Studies and a concentration on civil rights, how do you feel the issue should be addressed on campus?

First, I would like to say that many groups--the university NAACP, Black United Students, Save the World, the Antiracist coalition, as well as black and white students, faculty, and staff, have been trying to address this issue for a long time. But, generically speaking, the first step is dialogue. And the conversation cannot just include everyone who may roughly agree. It is important to create a safe discussion where people who disagree are invited to explain their views. Consequently, we need to create a situation where someone is not just going to be branded a "racist" for their views. Granted, one may think some of the critics may have "racist" views, but putting them on the defensive will not help, it's just going to create a tough situation where affecting positive change will be difficult. Now, of course, if a critic is just trying to be hurtful, disrespectful, inconsiderate, and narrow-minded then they should be addressed. That is just result of someone trying to assume some sort of power or superiority. But if the person is just truly inexperienced when it comes to these issues, then we should try to raise their awareness.  But, again, the age-old question remains, "How do we do so?" I'm not exactly sure, I just know it is hard work.

Second, a comprehensive plan of action needs to be outlined. This is where the different groups and individuals can decide which aspect of the problem to tackle and how. It shouldn't be assumed that BUS will use the same tactics to tackle the same problem as the antiracist coalition. Issues of race and difference are too complicated and some aspects are better suited for particular groups to address. Many white students know they will have to disrupt the behind the scenes racial talk and bring it out into the open. Many black students know they will have to assert their will and address instances of racism and proclaim their opposition to it. They will also have the daunting task of communicating their experiences to others while maintaining their position as individual and not a representative of their race. But, no matter what type of action and the identity of the participant, there just has to be flexible action. This action needs to be both interracial and intra-racial. Simultaneously, due to the unique realities of all groups, people need to be aware and respectful of the possibilities where particular groups should assert their own agency. And in the process, we'll have to tackle a variety of general issues, violence, sexism, homophobia, etc., in order to disarm those who only want to blame the people for their plight.

But again, this is not assuming that a lot of this work has not been done, because many people at Kent State have been doing the hard work of organizing.

7. Could you tell me a little about the incident with the News Journal article about your speech? Did the reaction change your views about the wider society or make you more aware of the difficulties that still have to be faced today?

When I was at The Ohio State University at Mansfield, I always participated in the Black History Month Celebration by planning and presenting speeches. Last year I discussed oppression in its many forms: racism, sexism, violence and child abuse, etc. I highlighted some instances of racism in America, American prostitution (the "pimp culture" many like to glorify) the underground slave trade in the U.S. and abroad, convict labor in the U.S., U.S. immigration policy, the Iraq War, and child soldiers in Uganda. I used some of the later thoughts of Dr. King to illustrate how civil rights extended beyond American borders.

Consequently, when the article about it ran in the newspaper (News Journal) I was heavily criticized for choosing the topic of oppression for a black history month speech. Apparently, many of the message board members assumed that I was just discussing white on black oppression in the United States. Because (and this is sarcastic), aren't we (black people) only concerned with blaming the "white man" for our problems? Shouldn't we start thinking for ourselves, like Bill O'Reilly alluded to, and not follow the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons who are only leading us down the path to an essential race-based society? But, in fact, I was discussing many aspects of global oppression and I tried to from the stance of the victim. At the same time, I also discussed how it related to black history month. It was a shame because it seemed that many people just projected what they thought about race and racism onto that story. One person was posting white supremacist articles about how black Americans should be thankful for what western Europeans (whites) have done for us through slavery and what not. I also received some backhanded compliments like, "I'm glad you're pursuing your master's degree, I just hope you do not turn into a Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton." I was thinking, "What does that mean?" People were also comparing me to Bill Cosby. I had no idea where that was coming from. What else is ironic is that, although I respect their past contributions, I do not totally agree with all Jackson and Sharpton's views or courses of action. We need group-based leadership, not the one-person, male, figurehead.

But I think their negative responses were indicative of the amount of Americans who truly believe they know all there needs to know about issues of race and difference. Instead of asking questions, they made and acted upon their assumptions. Sometimes it was insensitive and other times it was just plain racist. But one could tell they passively consumed and drew conclusions from a 650-1000 word newspaper article and some quotes instead of really trying to find out the contents of my talk. I was available for questions. But, there's a catch. I have a certain policy of only answering sincere people. I do not engage those who just want to criticize anyone because they may have different opinions or for the sake of it. There is too much going on in the world to worry about that, and that type of response only reinforces and encourages disrespect in our country. But, I'm not afraid of what someone is going to do or say because of that situation. As long as I have friends and family to support me in what I want to accomplish then I'm fine. None of us can afford to stoop to the level of name calling and disrespect. It will not do much to improve race relations and it will only serve to become hurtful sound bites in the future.

Austin McCoy is pursuing a Master's Degree in History at Kent State University. He is also an editor of Spirit of the Nation! He can be reached at a1mccoy@gmail.com for any further questions.