Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Polarizing Perils of Racial Identification

Dawn Turner Trice is a writer for the Chicago Tribune. A while back, she responded to a speech by Barack Obama, in which Obama called for more dialogue about race, by announcing that she was starting an online forum for people who wanted to talk about racial issues. I was somewhat skeptical about the idea that it would be truly open to those who wanted to frankly address some uncomfortable issues which needed to be addressed, but I made a note in the back of my mind that I'd have to make a point of visiting the site in order to see whether or not it was worthwhile to join in with those discussions.

A recent article addressed the question of whether or not it was divisive for African-Americans to refer to themselves in that manner, rather than simply describing themselves as Americans. I was encouraged to see that most of the participants in the discussion thus far agreed that it was divisive for them to do so.

Being the loquacious individual that I am, I had to throw in my two cents. The comment which I submitted is currently being reviewed, so I don't know whether or not it will be published there. But I thought that it was good enough for me to make an effort to insure that it would be available online somewhere, regardless of whether they published it or not. So here's the comment in its entirety. (It will be interesting to see how the unedited version compares with the version which ends up being published on that web page, assuming that it is published at all.)


Folks should just describe themselves as Americans, not as African-Americans or Irish Americans or Italian Americans. Most labels of that type are overly simplistic at best

My surname is of French derivation, but I've done enough research to learn that most people with my surname migrated to the United States from Scotland or Ireland, where they'd previously lived for centuries after migrating to the British Isles when William the Conqueror took over the throne. So what am I? French American? Irish American? Scottish American?

Frankly, my answer is, "None of the above." I'm an American, period. I've only been outside of this country once in my life, for a period of less than 24 hours. My ancestors left Europe many generations ago, so it's ludicrous for me to find my identity in the nationalities of ancestors I never met.

As for the issue of ethnicity, I'm learning that race is a fluid concept at best (which is exactly what the scientists have been trying to tell us). I know of a guy who lives in my building and who looks like any other white man with his clothes on. But his feet are as black as coal. If you only saw his feet, you would think he came from the heart of Africa. I didn't know that such a pigmentation phenomenon existed, but apparently, it does.

Folks who continually define themselves as African-Americans deliberately emphasize their ethnicity because doing so enables them to stress their belief that they are entitled to certain forms of "remedial discrimination" which otherwise wouldn't be available to them. It's a way of continually rubbing other folks' noses in the fact that they are the descendants of slaves, so that they can capitalize on the resulting guilt feelings, whether or not those feelings are warranted by an examination of the facts about the specific individuals being made to feel guilty.

Actually, if you look at the history of the world, a lot of white folks are probably the descendants of slaves, too. Slavery had a strong racial component in the U.S., but there have been other cultures which enslaved people without regard for race. Admittedly, that form of slavery was considerably more ancient, but I'm not sure that that's relevant to the point I'm trying to make, which is simply that "remedial discrimination" on the basis of race is as simplistic and unjust as the racist discrimination for which it is ostensibly the cure.

I know of no living Americans who have any direct experience of slavery. As for the argument to the effect that the effects of slavery have lingered even though slavery itself is dead, putting the descendants of slaves at a disadvantage, I can only say that while that may be true from a statistical point of view, the fact remains that many individual black people have managed to overcome racial obstacles in order to achieve standards of living which many other less fortunate white Americans have good reason to envy.

Making blanket assumptions about people based on race without knowing them as individuals is inherently unjust, and frankly, it's racist. So it's ironic that many black folks who claim to oppose racism endorse a form of reverse racism whenever they find that it's beneficial to do so. Such people lack integrity; and it is on account of that lack of integrity, not on account of their race, that they forfeit the right to receive respect.

People who vote for candidates based primarily on racial considerations and not on considerations of the specific policies being promoted by said candidates are also guilty of racism. Such "identity politics" are inimical to sound judgment. I say this as someone who lives in Chicago and who knows that most black folks plan to vote for Obama, for reasons having as much to do with peer pressure as anything else. Most of those people would vehemently deny that they endorse legal infanticide; yet, if they have their way, we will soon have a Democratic president who voted against Illinois laws designed to prevent infanticide on several occasions. Identifying one's self primarily on the basis of race can cause one to put on blinders which prevent one from appreciating the consequences of one's actions.

It's sad that America has a history of racial injustice, but there isn't a single living American of any race who is to blame for that fact. So let's stop playing the blame game, stop identifying ourselves in ways which emphasize our differences rather than emphasizing our commonalities, and start seeking to live our lives in such a way that Martin Luther King's famous dream can become a reality in the very near future.

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