News flash from UC San Diego: Party-animal frat boys sometimes engage in stupid, offensive and even racist stunts!
For weeks now, outrage over a fraternity party that encouraged guests to mimic and mock ghetto culture has embroiled the campus in La Jolla in old-school political theater. Then, in a separate incident, a noose was left in a university library (a student anonymously took responsibility and apologized). And finally, a pillowcase made to look like a KKK hood appeared atop a statue of Dr. Seuss.
In a diverse society, such incidents -- which draw cleavages between groups -- should be taken seriously. But such antics really don't signify our race problem today, and no one should think that indignation, marches, sit-ins and "days of action" against buffoonery constitute an effective struggle against racism. It might be satisfying to draw lines against the clowns, but it diminishes the difficulty of the real challenge before us.
Racism exists; it's still a significant inhibitor of social and economic progress. And given the country's majority-minority future,we simply can't afford not to be preparing more minorities for positions of authority and leadership.
This isn't the unsubtle, in-your-face racism of your imagination. The real bad guys aren't the easy to caricature toothless hillbillies of television dramas or some overweight, tobacco-chewing Southern sheriff straight out of a half-century-old Life magazine. They don't leave nooses as calling cards.
Somewhere along the line, the fight against genuinely entrenched racism -- the kind that keeps millions from achieving their dreams -- turned into a slapstick struggle against ill-behaved clowns like Michael Richards, John Mayer and foolish frat boys.
A few years ago, while I was in Mississippi, I met a prominent self-described white supremacist who didn't need a Klan hood to do more than his part to oppress African Americans. During the height of segregation, he didn't torch crosses in the dark of night; instead, he wore a suit and tie and put the economic squeeze on fellow whites who didn't toe his racist line. In my presence, he never once cursed blacks or used the "N-word." You can be a highly effective racist without all the obvious trappings.
So much of our contemporary discussion of racism is really about propriety, insensitivity, symbolism and insults. Lost in the media tumult over incidents like those at UCSD is a sensible definition of racism. To my mind, it is, in essence, the assumption or belief that an individual is intellectually or morally inferior by virtue of his genetic makeup. Particularly when held by authority figures -- teachers, police or employers -- it can limit the life choices and mobility of the people who must endure it.
Sometimes racism is linked to hostility or antipathy, but not always. You can think and act on the idea that someone is inferior without hating him or her. For that matter, you can hate someone without feeling superior. Although the latter is harmful to society, it's not as insidious and difficult to identify as true attitudes of racial superiority. Personally, I'd rather know that someone hates me outright for my background than suffer the treacly dishonesty of racial condescension.
All of this is not to say we should let offensive comments or antics slide. My point is that the bigger struggle is against the assumptions that many people still carry about the human capacity and potential of whole groups of other people. These more pervasive forms of modern racism tend to be expressed more indirectly. Contemporary racism is less and less about outright discrimination and more and more in the implicit expectations that, say, lead educators to demand less from some groups of children or supervisors to funnel minorities into lesser roles.
Don't obsess over the party, the noose and the hood. Today, what we have to fight is less the old clanging symbols than the quiet racism that keeps people from seeking and reaching their highest potential. Rather than self-righteously standing up against clowns, we should all be asking ourselves whether we too assume that a person's race automatically makes him less valuable than we are.