Racism in America in 2012


Has racism in America declined?  Spirited debates between family, my friends and I often center on this question.  The answer is complex because racism in America is constantly changing. 

One of my earliest memories of bigotry goes back to the first grade and the ripe old age of 6.  As I walked home from school with my new friend, we laughed and talked as most 6 year olds do.  She lived close to the school and as we approached her house she said, “Hey Lenore, what did God say when he made Negros?” My response was, “I don’t know, what did He say?” Her answer, “Oops I burnt another one!”

She burst into hysterical laughter pointing at me, as I stood there puzzled- one because I did not think it was funny, and two, we were friends. I wondered why she would be so mean to me. I cried all the way home.  I still remember that incident as if it were yesterday, and believe me, I have been out of the first grade for quite some time. 

That incident took place right here in the progressive state of California in 1960.  My parents both moved to California to escape the Jim Crow life of the South; my mom from Louisiana and my dad from Missouri (the upper South). They had thus far done a great job shielding my siblings and me from the ugliness of racism.

We lived in an integrated neighborhood, attended integrated schools and on occasion attended the integrated church close to our home. I had no idea people did not like me simply because of my color. When my father saw me crying and I explained to him why, he said, “Len, people will try to hurt you with words but I want you to remember this, think of yourself better than no one but just as good as anyone.”

His words gave me little solace then but as I grew older and faced other incidents of racism his words would give me the strength to fight back with pride in my heritage, love for my community and determination to rise above any obstacle placed before me. 

Fast forward 52 years later, 2012, and we continue to grapple with race in this country.  Absent are the obvious symbols of racism such as white-only drinking fountains or restrooms.  Atrocious public lynchings are no longer upheld by law enforcement.  African-Americans are permitted by law to eat, lodge or shop where we choose.

However, in spite of these apparent changes, racism is alive and well in America. It manifests itself differently from what most Americans believe racism to be, in ways that are not as noticeable. The school to prison pipeline that criminalizes rather than educates our children, particularly Black boys, is an example of new millennial-style racism. Mass incarceration is another manifestation of this new racism, which has allowed America to become the world’s largest incarcerator, especially of Black and Brown males. This so called justice system creates a caste of people who face legalized discrimination and political disenfranchisement once released from prison.  Additionally, I am compelled to mention Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Shaima Alawadi and numerous other cases where lives were violently taken yet the motivation of racial hate was vehemently denied by the perpetrators. 

Yes, racism and bigotry are alive and well in this country. And as long as heads are in the sand, people are in denial and politicians pit the races against each other, it will remain alive and well. Until the hearts and minds of Americans regard all races as worthy of genuine acceptance, beyond tolerance and colorblindness, the struggle will continue.

I no longer respond to bigotry with tears; I stand strong in the face of it. I challenge it at the ballot box, I challenge it with love and support for my community, and I challenge it by reaching out and attempting to right the wrongs that occur in everyday life.  Racism and bigotry have been a part of our nation’s entire existence, but it does not have to be a part of our future. I challenge you to stand with me in the face of bigotry by viewing fellow Americans as equal regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion or sexual orientation.  It is time for us to live up to our reputation as the greatest nation in the world by exhibiting behavior that demonstrates our greatness.