After the tragic shooting at the Sikh temple, I once again got to thinking about the prevalence of guns in this country. But just as importantly, it got me to thinking about racism and bigotry against people who are perceived as different. The concept of "different" is related to the concept of "normal," in that there's no static definition of either. We're all different. My two brothers grew up in the same household, but except for the slight physical resemblance, there are few other commonalities. Consider your family; every one of you has at least one uncle or cousin who's not like anyone else.
Being different can't be a basis for much of anything, because the only thing everyone in this country has in common is that we're American, or aspire to be. Otherwise, we're all different. So why do we we seem to always have that small-but-loud segment of society that simply has to treat group of people who are supposedly "different" as less than human? Why do we allow certain people to operate under the impression that they’re better somehow, by virtue of the color of their skin, their gender, their religious beliefs, their mode of dress, their sexual orientation, or any of a number of other purely arbitrary factors, such as their chosen profession?
I understand that the United States isn't alone. Hate exists all over the world. But most of them don’t bill themselves proudly as “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” and tout themselves as a “melting pot.”
Ah, what a melting pot we are, eh? I remember the first time I heard that phrase; I was in fifth grade, which would have been just after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were shot, apparently for wanting too much "melting." I heard the phrase a lot in Social Studies classes over the years, but noticed later that characterizations of the United States as a “melting pot” usually referred to the remarkable blending of various European cultures. It seems our pot would only melt as long as the color didn't stray too far from off-white or beige. Because we admired a good tan, we allowed Italians, Greeks and Spanish (as long as they were actually from Spain) into the mix. But anyone darker than that? Not so much.
While I do think we’ve grown in many ways, we still have a long way to go as a society. Finally, most of us seem able to acknowledge that black and brown people exist, which is an improvement, but it’s not enough. No one’s expecting anyone to be colorblind; black people have dark skin, wide noses and kinky hair, and it is okay to notice, just as you notice I have blonde hair and blue eyes. It's okay to notice that Latinos have brown skin and speak Spanish often. Noting apparent physical differences isn't where the racism problem lies. The problem lies in an instant negative judgment. It lies in the notion that somehow skin color makes one superior in some way, and the intolerance of anything viewed as "different.
Let me assure everyone who will ever read this; in the words of Sammy Davis, Jr. on “All in the Family” so many years ago, “…you ain’t better than anybody.”
And before you white progressives reading this get too high and mighty, let me assure you that liberals are often as guilty of racism as any right winger, it's just more subtle. The level of patronization that comes from many white liberals is appalling at times. I can’t tell you how many times some “edumacated” white liberal has prattled on about “what the blacks should be doing is…” or “if Latinos want to get ahead they’ll…”. Not the same style of racism as wanting to burn a cross on someone’s lawn, but racism nonetheless. Let me assure you; black and brown people don’t need your help, they'd like our support. Note the difference.
At its heart, the racism problem actualy lies in a warped sense of “individualism” common to many Americans; one that has absolutely no basis in reality. Consider the wide misinterpretation of what President Obama said in Roanoke on July 13. Here's what he actually said:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.)
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
He’s absolutely right on this. And yet, the only phrase that some see in the above is the 9 words I placed in bold type above. Now, I know some have made a conscious decision to misinterpret it out of political expediency, but the fact is, some folks actually believe he was dissing their business. He wasn’t. He was speaking the truth. We can't make it without each other.
No one builds a business in a vacuum. No one does anything entirely on their own. This society was built by individuals, sure. But it was built by individuals in concert with other individuals. The Founding Fathers didn’t build this country; they simply laid a legal foundation for the rest of us to use. We all need each other. This country can’t work without everyone participating in some way. What do you think your job is about? You perform a task for a customer or client, and your boss pays you. You made your boss money, and he pays you for helping him make money. You need each other, and your customers/clients need you, too. And someone paid your customer/client for something they did to help someone else, and so it goes.
We all have different talents, different aspirations, different feelings, different priorities; everything about each of us is different. But we all complement each other. That's what makes the country work. I’m happy there are people capable of fixing my car, because I can't do it. For that matter, I’m glad someone invented the car, and now, I wish someone would improve it, and make it run on something less lethal than gasoline, because I can't do it. I’m glad there are people capable of inventing, building and repairing this computer, because I can't. I’m glad there are people with the creative juices to build the backbone for this blog, because while I am quite capable of writing, I couldn'twrite the code that puts this writing where you can read it. And so on…
We need each other. If we want a great country, we have to learn to all work together, and stop thinking that some people are more important than others, especially because of abstract concepts like skin color or mode of dress. The CEO who makes $20 million per year still needs to call a plumber when his toilet backs up, and he certainly needs the workers at the sewage treatment plant, too. The actor who gets $20 million per film still needs someone to haul away his garbage, so that his massive estate isn’t overwhelmed by it. Can you imagine a world without janitors and cooks? Where would we be without teachers, police and firefighters? For that matter, when we come home and the refrigerator’s empty, you’re grateful for that lowly fast food worker whom you usually look down upon for that tasty burger, aren’t you?
What does all of this have to do with racism?
Everything. Seeing and recognizing differences is okay. Intolerance of people and an outright dismissal of their role in the functioning of society? That's not okay.
Racism and bigotry are based on twin false assumptions; that a person’s worth can be assessed on first glance based on the bigot's perception of their appearance; and that the bigot who believes that is somehow better than the object of his intolerance. Bigotry seems to be based on ignorance, but the fact is, a lot of ignorant people aren't racists or bigots. What makes someone a bigot is their intolerance of anything they don't accept or understand, and their willingness to hurt those they see as "different" in any way possible.
The Sikhs who were killed while they prayed together came here because this country is better for them; it's the same reason why white people came here, and why people of color flock here and stay and help build it. They were killed because someone had been taught that, somehow, white people were entitled to this nation as a birthright, and that everyone else wo comes here is encroaching on that somehow. But no one is entitled to anything they didn't work for, and that includes everyone in a society. And there isn't a group in this society that hasn't contributed to it in some signficant way throughout our history. Not one.
White people don't have to like or understand black and brown people, or vice versa, but we do have to tolerate each other and accept that everyone's role in this society is important. It's not necessary to invite "those people" into your home for dinner, but you owe it to them to protect their rights as you would protect your own. You don't have to like homosexuals or approve of homosexuality, but you have a duty to be tolerant, and you have a duty to protect their rights as you would protect your own. And women? They're half the population; arguably, the most important half, because they keep the population growing. Of course you have a duty protect their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as you would protect your own.
The shooting at the Sikh temple was the act of a single person with a warped mind, true. But he had help, andit came from a strain of intolerance that can't be allowed to exist. There's something wrong with us, when such bigotry is allowed to fester and grow in the first place. Sure they have a right to free speech, and they can say whatever hateful garbage they wish. But they need to be shouted down, and we need to let them know it's not okay.
I saw a number of liberals take to Twitter after the shooting, suggesting that people need to understand the Sikh religion. No we don't. There are literally thousands of religious sects represented in this country, and I'll never understand them. But that's okay; I don't have to understand anyone's religion to be tolerant of it.
It's time that tolerance of everyone bcame a default position. We're all different, but we're all Americans.