Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's iconic Washingdon D.C. "I Have A Dream" speech. President Obama and many others gave commemorative presentations at the same Lincoln Memorial site to acknowledge the day in history. The news media took the opportunity to discuss and debate the status of American race relations in 2013.
Progressive/liberal outlets like MSNBC spent the day discussing recent setbacks in civil rights in the US, including the return of ugly trends like voter suppression in southern states, police brutality, education inequality, vanishing manufacturing jobs and what they see as pretty overt racism towards President Obama.
Interestingly, more conservative outlets such as Fox News presented a much different story. They seemed to imply that they didn't really understand why another March on Washington was even necessary. Many conservative commentators stated their belief that racism of the sort that Dr. King and other African Americans suffered in their day is long gone.
After all, they ask, when was the last time you saw separate water fountains? Or police firing hoses on protestors, or sicking attack dogs on defenseless black men?
And their strongest argument: How can racism still exist if the most powerful man in the country is African American?
Isn't the race war over?
The answer, of course, is sort of. Yes, and no.
My more conservative friends and family will argue that there are not only African Americans but people of all races, white collar professionals who live and work amongst them in their upper-middle class neighborhoods and workplaces. And everyone gets along just fine.
Which leads me to my point: with the exception of certain geographical areas of the country (we all know where they are), I think we are, mostly now, post-racial.
But this post-racial badge comes with a gigantic asterisk.
We as white America do, for the most part, accept and welcome not just African-Americans, but Hispanics, Asians, etc., into our workplaces and neighborhoods -- but only if they dress, act, speak and live pretty much exactly like we do.
Another prerequisite to gaining entrance into the club? It really, really helps if you're religion is of the Judeo-Christian variety. If you're Muslim, and your wife wears a burka while shopping at Whole Foods? I don't care if you're the chief of neurosurgery at the local university hospital. Ahem. You know how it is. No offense.
We may for the most part not be racist in the old-fashioned sense of the word anymore.
But what we are is class-ist.
The Cosby Show family would be welcomed into most any upper
middle class neighborhood in America. After all, Cliff Huxtable was
an OB/GYN. A doctor. They lived in a big house and probably
drove a nice European car.
And they didn't act all rappy.
I was intrigued by the angry response by some whites to the recent
K-Mart ad campaign which featured urban African-American children
dancing, rapping and singing.
The words were mostly about taking the bus back to school, trying to look cool for a good price, etc. But they sang in "rap speak" -- which means they use slang aimed at the target demographic for the ad: African Americans. For lack of a better way to say it: they were speaking their own language.
But oh, the ire. Editorials and online rants exploded from white America complaining that...what, exactly, I'm not sure. They just didn't like seeing children rapping, I guess, even if it was just about clothes and school busses and going to K-Mart.
The key here is this: nothing offensive was said. They were just some pretty cute African American kids laughing, singing and dancing about new school clothes. There was no twerking going on.
By the way, speaking of twerking, please note the race
of Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke.
Miley Cyrus, by her actions in recent months, has to upper-middle class Christian white America plummeted in status from beloved child star Hannah Montana to...well...whatever label you want to place on her today.
And this has nothing to do with race. She is WHITE.
But she has dropped in status by virtue of class.
White America likes people of other races and cultures who act, dress and talk like we do. Period. If you don't, then you're suspect. We can't trust you. You're no longer in our tribe. Who knows what you might do? No offense. Gotta protect the family.
Now, to be fair -- this isn't just a White America issue. This is, to a certain extent, human nature.
For example, in the large corporate office I used to work in, there were hundreds of people of every different race and ethnicity that all worked together in the same building. By all accounts, everyone for the most part worked well together and there were no overt race-related problems.
But come lunch time, guess what? You go to the lunch room, and what do you find?
The Filipino table.
The Black table.
The Chinese table.
And it gets worse.
Despite the fact that I counted fellow employees of several different races amongst my friends, and I took pride in the fact that I considered the white chief medical officer and the Spanish speaking cleaning lady friends of equal stature, I was not off the hook either.
The sad truth is that my three very best friends at the office -- the ones I went out to lunch with, socialized with outside of work and entrusted my most personal secrets and stories -- were white like me, and had nearly identical upper-middle class protestant childhoods as mine. They enjoyed the same music, movies, books and TV shows, had the same political leanings and had basically the same level of college education.
So what does this mean? The cynic would say: "See? Everybody's a racist deep down."
I could not disagree more strongly.
I simply believe that OF COURSE, we are all drawn to people with similar backgrounds and similar families. OF COURSE we are all drawn to people who like the same music as we do, and who practice the same religion.
You know why? Because we know that by seeking out the similar, the odds are good that we will be understood. We will be welcomed and appreciated. We will not be judged. We know they'll probably laugh at our lame jokes!
So, what's the answer?
For me, after nearly two years of traveling the world, sailing thousands of miles, I know from personal experience that there are kind, quality people of integrity in all cultures around the world. I know that everyone wants the same things: happiness and security for themselves and their loved ones. We all want to be understood, appreciated and loved.
There are thugs, heroes, saints and sinners in every race and social class. But for the most part, my experience tells me that most people are basically good and aren't trying to hurt anybody. Most people, though often fumbling and bumbling, are truly doing the best they can.
I know for myself, I seek out people of different races, backgrounds and yes -- different classes. Because this enriches my life. Yes, sometimes it's scary. But it's always worth it.
One more thing about human nature: scientists and anthropologists are discovering that it is in our DNA to try to work together. To seek to help and to understand. To be part of the human tribe.
This is how we thrive.
The lone wolf withers and dies.
We need each other. Now, more than ever.