MSNBC host Chris Matthews said after President Obama's State of the Union speech that "I forgot he was black." Senator Reid's comments about "light-skinned" and Don Imus' remarks about "nappy-headed" could lead us beyond using racial issues as a "gotcha" to serious consideration of how race and ethnicity affect us all.
Dr. Richard Davis has pointed out that no one who grew up in America grew up unaffected by the conversations in the media and elsewhere about race.
We do notice skin color. I was once meeting someone I did not know on a busy street corner and asked for a description from a mutual friend. The friend, possibly to avoid looking prejudiced, told me he was a man of average height and weight. Finally I asked, "Is he black or white?" He was black.
Americans consider President Obama to be black because, as he says, "I look black." We celebrated his election as the first black President, even though aware that he has a white mother and was largely reared by white grandparents.
The problem is not that we notice color or ethnicity, but when we use that visual clue to make adverse judgments about a person and to act accordingly. This can affect any of us. For most whites, being white is never a problem. They can easily assume that white is normal. This can lead to casual comments such as, "I forgot he was black," as a reaction to a President's speech. Can you imagine anyone saying after listening to President Bush, "I forgot he was white"?
Assuming we are now in a "post-racial" society can too easily lead to making "gotcha" responses to an unintentional use of the wrong word or an insensitive remark. These are serious and should be addressed. Focusing on whether or not the words of a well-known person are racist can lead to sensitive and depth examination of racism. Matthews' comments could be an acknowledgment that his race is not the most important thing about President Obama or it could have reflected an unacknowledged feeling that only whites make good speeches. But "gotcha" can distract from a thoughtful examination of this complicated issue. It can divert us from considering the extent to which race and ethnicity continue to adversely effect the lives of millions of Americans.
The economic downturn has hurt minorities more than non-minorities. Their joblessness is higher, and they more likely live in neighborhoods affected by the housing crisis. These results are at least partially due to discrimination which research shows continues to exist, hurting people of color in a variety of ways. It affects their ability to obtain employment, housing, and in some instances, to walk down the street without harassment.
Studies document doctors treating blacks and whites differently even when dressed in identical hospital gowns. People in Chicago, Seattle, and Baltimore judged the amount of crime in their neighborhood on the number of young black men present, not on the actual crime rate. Americans have always considered welfare to be a program for blacks although white women were the greatest number of recipients.
In my book "Connecting the Dots: Government, Community and Family," I cite numerous studies documenting different treatment of whites and minorities in the criminal justice system, housing and the job market. In Milwaukee, for example, whites with a criminal record were more likely to be hired for low-skilled jobs than blacks with no criminal record.
It is important for us each to consider and discuss our attitudes and our automatic assumptions about people of different race or ethnicity. But it should not distract us from continuing to acknowledge and attack the remaining discrimination in our institutions.
Copyright@2010 by Peggy Wireman
Dr. Peggy Wireman is the author of six books including "Connecting the Dots: Government, Community and Family" and "Connecting the Dots: A Guide to Community Action." Her blog can be found on connecting dots.us and twitter@PeggyWireman. She is a consultant living in Madison, Wisconsin.