Archive for racial equality

AR Plates Stir Controversy

The news just came out and you’ll likely see it on local news stations tonight, but I thought I’d throw this up for those of you doing research on Arkansas culture and life. A recent set of Arkansas License plates with the letter combination of “NGR” have been deemed offensive, for the obvious reasons. That particular letter combination will no longer be used.

I don’t know if I would have noticed this at first. Not out of insensitivity but out of just pure-D myopia. I’m often distracted and don’t pay attention. I don’t even know my own license plate number. A lot of bloggers are hissy-fitting over the tired old “we’re too politically correct” and “the lady who noticed it is just suffering from white guilt” arguments. Personally, I think she did the right thing. I mean, there’s a reason why states skip certain letter combinations. If “FUK” isn’t acceptable then I see no difference here. There are just some unfortunate combinations and it doesn’t hurt anyone to avoid them. If you were young and single and female and got “HOE” as your letter combinations, I bet you’d ask for another one. I would.


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On Hope (A meandering philosophy)

All this hullabaloo around Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama has me ruminating on racial equality again.  A lot of what Rev. Wright admittedly has some serious logic flaws.  For example, it’s obvious that the U.S. Government couldn’t pull off the development and transmission of AIDS to minorities.

After all, it is still the basic governmental machine that failed to rescue hundreds of people from New Orleans after Katrina.  The theory just gives the bureaucratic mechanism way too much credit. On the other hand, he’s also a man who had to have a singular focus on inspiring himself, and others, to rise above the conditions set for them by a racist society. 

It is really easy for white people to pretend to be offended by Rev. Wright. After all, he pushes all of our relatively-comfortable buttons.  The truth is, none of us middle-class white folk are truly threatened by anything Rev. Wright does.  We’re also not really threatened by the specter of African-Americans finally gaining some political capital in this country.   The real threat to “white America” might be our inability to adapt to a world in which the face of power and privelege is slowly, painfully beginning to change.

Coincidentally, I’m reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse right now. I just finished a chapter on the collapse of the medieval Norse Greenland colony.  The summary of their experience goes like this:  they failed completely to make useful contact with the Inuit, who came into Greenland sometime in the latter part of the Norse reign there.  Because they failed to cooperate, they exacerbated an already bad environmental crisis. 

The Norse hadn’t taken into account the precise nature of their environment and overused their available agricultural land.  The rest fell to erosion after the Norse switched almost entirely to sheep farming.  When sheep farming lost sustainability, the Norse found themselves in serious trouble. 

They didn’t learn to hunt whale or other large sea life from the Inuit. The didn’t learn to fish in the Arctic from the Inuit; they didn’t learn to replace their dwindling iron supplies with local alternatives; they didn’t learn to rely more heavily on seal. Instead, when they encountered the Inuit, the Norse mostly reacted by killing them.  Eventually, the Norse vanished from Greenland.  The Inuit remain.  

If I can be so bold as to sum up the entirety of human history, I’d say that another pretty obvious point is that continual oppressive domination of one group by another isn’t sustainable either.  Colonialism is a completely failed experiment, apartheid is as well, so is the “super-power” view of the world, and so is institutional and government supported racism.   If the vanished Norse teach us something, it’s that cooperation is a better survival strategy than domination.   

But whatever, right?  All of this kind of seems self-evident to me. I think, for a lot more people out there right now, it seems pretty obvious too.  Let me get real for a second, in case I’ve lost someone.

Here is where I stand: I’m a white girl from a small town in the south, raised in an upper-middle class household, and I have two post-graduate degrees.  I am privileged in many, many ways.  I’m particularly aware of my own privilege because I am trained in the Liberal Arts. 

Just as I was being born, Literary and Cultural Theory arose out of protest against the New Critics of the Modern era.  The Post-Modern era arose. Multiculturalism, identity politics, and new historicism took over.  All of this trickled down into graduate schools and, eventually, into the rest of our educational system.    By the time I hit kindergarten in 1980, integration was in full swing. Sensitivity toward other races became the American ideal, rather than the ideal of exclusion and domination that was finally put to rest during the Civil Rights Movement.  

This doesn’t mean that racism vanished, or even that governmental racism went away. There are too many examples of it in recent times to even begin to make that argument.    What it does mean, though, is that the American ideal began to change from the blatantly and open racist view of the past. 

Powerful organizations began to slowly become accountable for their actions via lawsuits.  While we may never wipe out racism entirely in our institutions, it is a pretty amazing thing we’ve managed to finally set up a 50 year old precedent of doing the right thing, mostly, in terms of civil rights.  

By the time I got to graduate school, the notion that all cultures are equally important was a bedrock of my personal philosophy.   I may note differences between cultures, but I fundamentally believe that people and all their stories have something to teach the rest of us.  I believe this because this is what I was taught to believe during my (gasp!) 23 years of American schooling (12 years of public school, six years of undergraduate, five years of graduate school).  In corporate-speak, this is a core value.  All other ideas spin off from this one.  

And you know what? I’m very proud of that. I’m proud that all my American education taught me to value equality and to shun racism. That’s a healthy and productive perspective.  Besides that, I like the fact that American society is so diverse.  I am proud that we continue to foster diversity and we continue to attract immigrants from around the world.  It’s this multiplicity of voices that makes the place really interesting. 

If you transport me seventy years into the past, I would have learned a very different lesson at the feet of all those teachers.  I would have learned the false, and dangerous, sense of superiority based on my racial heritage.  I would have been discouraged from exploring writing by women, or the Maori, or even the Ozark hillbillies by my graduate mentors. 

The values I learned, however, represent the pretty radical paradigm shift between a narrow, cold closed-perspective system (valuing literature based purely on, say, the sex of the author) and a wide-open system that tries to value and document the world’s real depths.   Because the secondary system opens up the most possible options for everyone’s survival, it’s obviously the most desirable.  

All of this is to say that Rev. Wright hasn’t quite made the switch with the rest of us. While his children and grandchildren were growing up with a completely different message, he was still telling himself another story.  Barack didn’t miss it, because he literally lived the new American paradigm.  I didn’t miss it, and I’m a white girl from the south. There are millions of other Americans of all races under the age of 40 that didn’t miss it either.  This was part of the American dream we got in kindergarten: racism is bad.

To me, this is the first and greatest hurdle the Civil Rights Movement needed to accomplish.  If the goal was to change the prevailing attitudes of millions of Americans, then it worked through the “multiculturalism” in schools and universities.  It makes complete sense to me that my generation would see a woman and an African-American man become major contenders for a presidential nomination.  We are the product of the new equality paradigm in America. 

This is not to say that anyone should stop fighting racism, in government or in society. Nor is it to say that from my obviously privileged perch I deem racism a completely dead social force.  That’s also obviously untrue.  We will continue to need people who fight for racial equality just like we need teachers and doctors and lawyers and janitors.  They serve a much needed purpose, which is to keep check on the majority perspective. 

As I get to the end of this opus here, I am left with just one more thing to say.  It is time that we started to recognize that for millions of Americans the world really is a multi-color bonanza.   Sadly for Rev. Wright, his world is still being broadcast in black and white; just like Pat Buchanan’s world is also a flat, color-poor place.    

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