Most of us heard about the recent Supreme Court decision involving "reverse discrimination" against white firefighers. The case has been used to undermine President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. It also seems to prove that the establishment is correct and those of us who argue against the 400 year legacy of racial discrimination have been hitting the crack pipe. Terms like "reverse discrimination" are regularly used to validate arguments against racial progress, and most Americans simply do not understand how racism works in America. The rest of us simply don't care. Here are some quick thoughts on the issue to help us make sense of it all. Hopefully, the Rush Limbaughs of the world are smart enough to follow along, but I should probably know better than that:
1) The term "reverse discrimation" is silly and misguided: Terms like this were designed by those who feel an entitlement to a certain degree of power in our society in order to alleviate them of the guilt of what they've done to every black man, woman and child for the past 400 years. Stop using this term, it makes you look ridiculous. It's a lot like the fat kid telling the anorexic one that he discriminated against him by taking the last cookie.
2) Racism is actually not the primary problem: The problem in America is not that whites hate blacks and want to kill us; it is that the whites who are descendants of the whites who used to kill us are not willing to acknowledge that these actions have a lasting impact on our society. When you go into most major universities, there are very few black professors (check out my campus, Syracuse University, which rarely gives tenure to African Americans, but has no trouble scouring the housing projects looking for their next Carmello Anthony). All of these disparities did not come about by accident: They came about through hundreds of years of consistent and deliberate attempts to keep African Americans in the underclass of our society. Guess what? It worked. If you want to understand America's past, you must only look at its present. The huge imbalance of power along racial lines is a modern day manifestation of all that has occured in our nation's tainted history. But white male supremacist thought teaches us that white men have most of the power and money because they are simply better than the rest of us.
3) Aretha Franklin best describes what Americans need to have in the racial dialogue: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. There is a reason that most African Americans are scared to death to speak out against racism: Because they get mobbed. They lose their jobs for speaking up, they are chastised, attacked and ridiculed. There is an effort to beat you down and shut you up for not going along with the power structure. Personally, I am not bothered when others attack me, but I was reminded of this caveman-like behavior after seeing the crazy comments that were made when I pointed out the clear use of racial stereotypes in the most recent Transformers film. I also see it every day when my colleagues at Syracuse hate me for speaking up for black people.
The point of a racial dialogue is not for you to agree with what every person of color is saying: It is to respect us when we say it. If a woman feels that her husband is mistreating her and she says, "Honey, it really hurt me when you said I was too fat," the husband has several options in response to her statement. He could yell at her and tell her why she shouldn't be offended by what he said, or he could simply say, "Look, although I don't quite understand why this offended you, I will be more careful in the future because I know that it bothers you. I do this because I care about you and want you to feel respected."
Some Americans don't always show respect when people of color speak up on issues that affect our lives. We are told that we are too sensitive, that we are crazy, and that we are making things up. But the truth is that there is glaring, overwhelming and undeniable statistical evidence stating that these racial imbalances are real. Even the most racist of whites (you hear me, Sean Hannity?) will not dare argue that there have not been hundreds of years of murderous and holocaust-like terrorism of people of color in America. The remnants of this discrimation show themselves all around us in our horrifically imbalanced society. To think that you can reverse 400 years of devastation with 30 years of affirmative action is non-sense.
Many Americans think that racism relates to what we are doing right now. They think that racial inequality will magically disappear if we simply "stop being racist." That's like saying that you can drive a car at 100 miles per hour for 3 years straight and that by taking your foot off the gas, the car is going to stop, turn around and start moving backward. That's silly. If Americans are serious about creating real racial healing, the truth is that a meaningful and respectful dialogue must occur. We must be every bit as deliberate and progressive in removing the inequality as we were in creating the inequality in the first place. Killing the messenger on a regular basis is not going to solve the problem.
In the audio clip below, I have a conversation with Elliot Millner, a black attorney who breaks down the logistics of the Sonia Sotomayor reversal and how it affects every day Americans. Please take a listen.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Distinguished Scholar with the Barbara Jordan Institute for Policy Research at The University of Texas Southern. For more information, please visit www.BoyceWatkins.com. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered directly to your email, please click here.