I moved to Arizona in 2003. The first time I saw a rattlesnake I about shit myself. (S)he (I didn’t look that closely) was coiled up adjacent to our front door and we noticed it when a solicitor came by to sell us magazines or tell us to nuke the unborn gay whales for Jesus, I don’t remember which.
Since that time, I have seen many rattlers and many more have seen me. I respect them, but I no longer fear them. If you live in Arizona, rattlesnakes are part of the landscape.
It occurs to me that perhaps part of the problem we have with race in this country is we fear one another. Fear is a natural response to something or someone that can hurt you. Americans feared German soldiers in WW2 until they defeated them then they found, of all the cultures in Europe that they had encountered, it was the Germans they liked the best. (Stephen Ambrose also writes that they loved the Dutch, but the only Americans in Holland were two airborne divisions. Most Americans never were in Holland). Based in part on the news media, movies, television, and extremely limited personal experience, many White Americans fear African Americans. They may like an on individual Black person, but they fear Black people. They also, at least tacitly, believe that “white culture” is superior to “black culture”.
Now, maybe I am telling a White family secret, but few Whites will ever admit they feel this way. Even so, watch their blood pressure go up when they make a wrong turn into a predominantly Black neighborhood. They’ll be like me with my first rattlesnake. I’m no sociologist but I’ll call this “passive racism”, which I’ll define as “an irrational fear of a racial or ethnic group based upon ignorance”. Passive racists don’t actively hate or dislike Black people or Mexicans or Asians or anyone else. They just don’t think of them at all, except when some event or TV show or something forces them to. And direct interaction with more than a limited number of them at a time is highly threatening, in part from conditioning, but in larger part because fear is a natural human response to things or people you don’t understand.
And notice my effortless use of the word “them”. To most White people non whites ARE “them”, they are “other”. They are different from me, they want what I have, and I therefore must protect myself, my family, and my property from… them.
This form of (passive) racism elected Donald Trump, who based his whole campaign on fear of brown hoards coming from the south and as president sought to ban immigration from Muslim majority nations and other “shit hole” countries. He does it in the name of protecting Americans. He is ACTIVELY supported by a plurality (maybe a majority) of white Americans (I haven’t seen recent statistics but it may be a majority of White males).
As I look back on my youth, I see this is nothing new. Growing up in the 70’s, I knew few Black kids, even though I grew up in working class neighborhoods. De facto segregation existed. I do believe things have changed some and ironically, things have changed more in the south than in the north. But the South had the furthest to go. Still, the fact remains we live in a nation where comparatively few white people have daily significant interaction with people of color.
This is a problem. I’ll say this is the problem. It makes people easier to exploit. Ignorance is a passive poison. To take it, just do nothing. Ignorance of the daily experiences of African Americans also makes white people blind to injustices the AA community faces. Frankly, raising white kids, it never occurred to me to have “the talk” with them about interacting with police (at least beyond being respectful). But every Black parent in America has this talk with their kids, especially sons. This leads to a dichotomy in how we see our current racial strife. Too many whites don’t see the injustice. They only see rioting.
You may say, not without justification, that there are significant issues within the Black community. You wouldn’t be wrong but you would be irrelevant. To say that “black on black violence” is a problem is America is to state the obvious, but that is not what I’m talking about today and it really can’t be addressed until the relationship with law enforcement changes. When a population doesn’t trust those who are charged with protecting it, that population will limit its interaction with law enforcement to the greatest extent possible. Therefore violence by police against Black people is directly linked to other forms of violence. They cannot be separated. Effective policing is impossible in areas where the police are not trusted.
There are no easy solutions and change -real change- will be slow. But it will come. Leaders must rise and initiate meaningful dialog and action. We see today the results of a lack of leadership across the political spectrum, at least at the national level. Lack of leadership leads to mindless populism and will be the ruin of our country.
The late Jack Kemp (professional football player and congressman) it was said, had showered with more Black men than most White people had met. And until that changes, nothing else will. Until we learn to truly know one another, fear will win.