On Racism

When I was a general assignment reporter just starting out in Charleston, West Virginia, in the mid-1970s, one of my first news directors advised me to steer clear of debating either abortion or capital punishment with anyone who either opposed the first or supported the second. “Save your breath,” he said. “Almost nobody changes their beliefs on those issues. And if they do, it’s not because of any rational argument.” I’d add racism to that list of entrenchables, unpopular as that may be in our techy, high-speed times where reason takes a heavy back seat to the almighty outward appearance. Another athlete, backpedaling from a racist comment caught on some fellow party-goer’s Smartphone? There he is leading the next day’s news cycle, apologizing to the world that no, he’s no racist, it was an unfortunate but purely innocent slip of the tongue. Did getting caught change his beliefs? Of course not, but he’ll be sure to drive his racist beliefs deeper underground in the future and never, ever, talk about them in public where a cell phone lurks in every pocket. At least others won’t have to listen to his racist crap in public anymore. Public shame can motivate good behavior, and, so the theory goes, the heart will eventually follow, though it may take a few generations. 

I was first introduced to the purely rational side of this story by another great mentor of my youth – my high school American history teacher. Ms. Cogan looked levelly out at our class and declared, “I don’t care if you’re a racist. But I care very much if you act like a racist.” She understood that actions can be monitored and regulated but that our emotions flow forever freely within us. My own liberal father, a U.S. Marines Corps fighter pilot in Okinawa, was shot down near the end of the war and spent its closing weeks in a POW camp. His later civilian life with my mom was a rainbow of religions and ethnicities and he was committed to fairness for everyone and nary a racist nor prejudiced word ever passed his lips. But…he refused to buy a Japanese car. 

As human beings we are far more likely to act on our emotions than on reason – like the prudent car shopper who spends weeks studying comparisons of gas mileage, engine quality and the like before stepping onto the first car lot and impulsively buying something totally different simply because he fell in love with it on the spot. 

The only way to overcome racism in the short term is to promulgate and enforce laws that prohibit its many visible manifestations until we have lived and worked with people who different from ourselves: ethnically, racially, sexually, politically, and economically. The most color-blind person I’ve ever known was a cameraman in the news department of a TV station where I worked years ago. He grew up in Detroit in the late 50s, early 60s, and went to the local public schools all the way up through graduation. His classes were roughly equally black and white, with many other ethnicities as well. He truly did not see a person’s color. Compare that with an experience my Turkish former mother-in-law told me about─that when Turkey first joined NATO and black American soldiers arrived in Izmir, Turks would approach them to cautiously touch their skin, wondering if the color rubbed off. Living in a homogeneous population decades before computers or even much television, most had simply never seen a black person. 

Our pesky emotions, forged in our fallible human hearts in the crucible of our own experience, dictate that sometimes it’s hard to even recognize that we’ve backslid into the traditional beliefs of our tribes, even in light-hearted moments not intended to offend. I was chatting with my black co-trainer in San Francisco years ago and asked her to tell me a honky joke. Nervous and sensitive to appearing prejudiced, she made me promise to never identify herself as its source. She then told the story of how she recently walked into her house after work to find her father and his friends tee-heeing in front of a golf tournament on TV where Tiger Woods was winning big. Her father turned to her, laughing, and said, “It’s great to see a black man beating a bunch of white guys with clubs.”

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