COLUMN: The Human Condition

Racism… bias… discrimination… inequality… Alive and well and living in America

By Martha E. Conway

Racism: 1. prejudice or animosity against people who belong to other races. “I am a Muslim and … my religion makes me against all forms of racism.” Malcolm X Speech, Prospects for Freedom. 2. the belief that people of different races have different qualities and abilities, and that some races are inherently superior or inferior (Encarta Dictionary)

Discrimination: 1. unfair treatment of one person or group, usually because of prejudice about race, ethnicity, age, religion, or gender. (Encarta Dictionary)

Inequality: 1. social or economic disparity between people or groups. 2. unequal opportunity or treatment based on social, ethnic, racial, or economic disparity. 3. the condition or an instance of not being equal. (Encarta Dictionary)

Bias: 1. an unfair preference for or dislike of something. (Encarta Dictionary)

I used to make fun of Emily Post. Those rules of etiquette – say for a dinner party – were too extremist for me. I just couldn’t understand who was going to die if someone used the wrong fork or dipped their spoon from the wrong direction. I guess people used to die of humiliation over stupid things.

I get it now. Even though I still think those types of rules are ridiculous, it has never been clearer than during the past year that we need to have basic rules of society. It gives people a framework within which to operate – ground rules for what is socially responsible and acceptable. An algorithm for people who may feel lost in certain situations, giving them a set of instructions to help improve confidence and comfort in unfamiliar circumstances.

In the early ’80s, I read an essay by Colgate alum Andy Rooney. He wrote that our entire society is based on a foundation of trust. For instance, that when we drive, we trust other motorists to stay on their side of the painted line. We trust they are going to stop at intersections. Essentially, we trust they are going to adhere to the laws of society that make it possible for us to interact safely with each other.

Trust that you would be treated fairly in a traffic stop is gone for a huge number of our fellow Americans. It’s been a source of terror for decades, but within – or at least in an accelerated manner – this past year. Civil discourse has disappeared. Long-festering hatred and resentment erupted. Caring and concern about the social or physical comfort of those around us evaporated.

Too, too many people are walking around like wounded animals looking for an opportunity to unleash their wrath on any handy target, and too, too many feel unsafe – either due to fear of offending someone or fear of outright violence against them and their loved ones by the others.

As a result, precious few seem capable of talking about any of the uncomfortable issues that are being thrown at us daily, but these conversations need to be had, no matter how uncomfortable, if this country is ever going to heal and move forward together, you know, united. Other predatory world leaders, perhaps students of Machiavelli, see this division and are moving in for the kill.

Racism, bias, discrimination and inequality exist. Those who deny it likely also deny the Holocaust and white privilege. It’s probably hard for people of color to hear any of this from someone as Casper-white as I am, and for the others who can’t seem to talk in terms of black and white, let me invoke the world of gender differences.

A quote from Margaret Atwood sums up gender inequality nicely: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” An unofficial poll in the early 1990s bore this out, and it is an example of how men and women don’t walk in the same world.

To further demonstrate discriminate gender perceptions, if a man were leaving work late and was assaulted while taking a shortcut through a dark alley to catch his ride home, sympathies would flow. A woman assaulted in the same set of circumstances would be asked what the hell she was doing in the alley.

Gender, like being un-white, is generally visible, and different segments of the population hold bias, discriminate against and treat women like second- or third-class citizens. Also visible is body type – if you are too short, too tall, too heavy, too thin – you’re a target. Smokers are treated like criminals.

Discrimination against people for gender, body type/size and smoking has been pretty openly accepted forever. I don’t smoke, but I’ve been subjected to bias in the other two categories. I know how it feels to be singled out, punished and been made to feel diminished for existing characteristics over which I have no control.

But it is one thing for people to look at you and feel that women=weak/emotional/stupid and fat=stupid/lazy; I can only imagine what it is like to have someone look at you and feel all-consuming unadulterated hatred.

The enslavement, abuse and suppression of the rights and freedoms of an entire people didn’t end with Abolition; not by a long shot.

Violence and domestic terrorism against blacks have continued through very recent years; Jim Crow laws enacted in the late 1890s were in full force and effect through much of the south into the 1960s…barely 50 years ago. There are plenty of witnesses still living who can provide first-hand testament to the intense fear associated with living in the 1960s south, a time that brought things like the slaughter of four young girls in a church bombing in 1963 and the murder of civil rights workers just trying to make a difference.

Men and women don’t walk in the same world, and white people and people of color don’t walk in the same world, either.

The intense focus on what makes us different from each other has blinded us to the fact that there is a place that exists where I believe progress on race relations can be made: the place where we are more alike than different…the things that make us uniquely human and a single human race.

We are all way more alike than we are different. We all want opportunities to provide adequately for our families. We all want to raise our children in safe neighborhoods with good schools and bright futures for our young adults. We love our children. We all grieve when we lose those close to us. We worship and perform community service. We work and go to school and hope for a better life. We bleed the same.

And we all want to enjoy the rights and freedoms under the U.S. Constitution, its amendments and the Bill of Rights of this country…equally.

But equality doesn’t exist for an enormous segment of our population, and I completely understand why the underrepresented and underserved would have a huge problem respecting the symbols of the rights and freedoms they and their loved ones have been deprived. I am incredibly proud of the athletes who are using the power of their position and the platform at their disposal to raise awareness of the festering divide that exists in this country.

Sometimes there is a lot of pain on the path to healing, but that’s much better than the energy required to maintain burning hatred for an entire population based on a physical trait. It would take me a decade to make it through the list of things I don’t understand about racism and anti-Semitism.

When you decide an entire race or gender has no value, you lose the benefit of a collective body of history, knowledge, experience and its contributions to society.

Take a look at the contributions of women and people of color (Google or History.com are good places to start)  – from science and medicine to entertainment, art, literature and cuisine – and tell me which ones you’re willing to live without.

I’m not willing to face that void.

Martha E. Conway is publisher of MadisonCountyCourier.com.

2 comments to COLUMN: The Human Condition

  • Jim Coufal

    Martha, well said and right on. But I do have a question about tolerance and cultural boundaries. Apparently, a recent studying Colorado found a high percentage of young men unfit for military service. Why, because they are obese. The question then, can society tolerate such (mass) obesity and if not, how does one deal with, of course recognizing that each person is obese for some specific reason.

    • martha

      I think we know more about outer space than we do about weight issues. It doesn’t help that when insurance was decent, it still didn’t cover much in the mental health field, and I think counseling needs to be a part of most weight loss plans. Americans, in general, have a very strange relationship with food, where other cultures treat it as fuel.

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