Thursday, October 11, 2007


I was catching up on some random blogs and found these pictures and video of some white kids giving their rendition of Jena 6. It made me ill.

I was fortunate to be brought up largely free of racism. The small town in California in which I was raised didn't suffer from the black-white divide that I would see only on television. (Although in retrospect, there was a current of racism against hispanics in that community stemming from strained relations with the migrant worker population that would come to work the fields).

My first blatant exposure to racism, the incident that forced me to confront its ugly reality, occurred when I went away to college. One of my roommates was (and still is, I believe) of African-American descent. Black. A bright kid studying biology at UC Berkeley, he was raised in another small town in California in a middle class family as I was. We became good friends when we met in the dorms, then moved into an apartment the next year.

It was while we were still in the dorms that he was getting ready to head to the airport on a trip. He was dressed in a suit, and had his small travel bag and suit carrier in his hands. We were walking to the parking lot when I joked that this girl he'd been trying to avoid was approaching, so he broke into a laughing run to the parking garage.

Coming up the street at the time was a Berkeley Police Department vehicle. As my friend ran into the parking garage, this cop turned on his flashers and whipped into the parking lot after him. Pulling his gun, he told my friend to halt. Which he did.

As I jogged up, the cop was questioning my friend, having him open his suit carrier and asking him where the suits came from. Shocked, I stormed up and shouted at the cop something about WTF was he doing, this guy lived in the dorms across the street, etc. The cop wheeled around and told me that unless I wanted to go to jail too, I'd better shut up and move away. "On what charge?" I asked. "Obstructing a police officer, and whatever else I come up with. Now step away!"

I was stunned. I had never come face to face with such blatant racism and abuse of power before. (And this was nothing, I realize. But it was my first exposure to this aspect of the real world.) My sense of helplessness, the horrible pain of empathy as I saw the look of anguish and humiliation on the face of my friend...

It made an impression.

Since then, I've managed to get some experience on the "other side". Traveling around the world, being the only white face in a restaurant or a plane, being ignored or treated poorly. Americans certainly aren't the only ones in the world who suffer from racism.

But it does appear to be deeply rooted in the formation of our country. And 300 years later, in the midst of universal education, globalism, and the village of the internet, it still amazes me to see behavior like that in the video.

Fear Leads To Hate...

I believe "fear of other" is the basis of most forms of racism. I think this sort of fear is tied to ignorance. I've noticed that people are usually only racist in the abstract.

By this I mean that most people I have met who make what I consider to be racist comments only make them about a generic stereotype of people they haven't met. These same people can be very racist against blacks (or, as in Texas and California where I grew up, hispanics), but be very kind and friendly with an individual of that same persuasion. In fact, they point to the fact that they have "a black friend" to demonstrate how they couldn't be racist. You know..."I'm not racist! I love black people. I took one to lunch just the other day..."

They seem to view any individual they know and like as an exception to whatever racist stereotypes they've formed. But strangers of that race are guilty of a big bag of negative associations, until they prove that they're "like me."

As George Lucas once said (via a muppet called Yoda), "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the Dark Side."

Racism, homophobia, religious jihads...they all stem from fear and insecurity. Given the strong selection advantage that fear provides a species, I'm afraid (pun intended) that we'll never solve these disgusting tendencies.

We can only strive to recognize the Dark Side, and intentionally choose against it.

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