In a recent decision, the Fifth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that beyond “race,” color, in and of itself, can raise a bias claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In this particular case, a certain waitress and bartender named Esna Etienne was passed over for a managerial position, which was given, according to her complaint, to a less qualified white employee. In fact, as stated in the opinion, the person hired for the managerial position “had worked as a waitress and bartender during her time at Spanish Lake and, in fact, had received her initial training from Etienne.” The complaint also makes reference to an affidavit submitted by the manager whose resignation created the opening denied to Etienne. In that affidavit, he claims that the general manager believed Etienne was “too black” to perform certain tasks.
How this case will end up is anyone’s guess, but to think that this kind of alleged behavior in the workplace still exists challenges even the most reserved and qualified notion that we live in anything approaching a “post-racial” society. I am reminded of an old blues song composed in 1939 by Big Bill Broonzy. He wrote the song based upon his own experience in the workplace. As a seasoned factory worker he was assigned the task of training a newly hired white employee. After about a month, he was told that his trainee was to be his boss, and those things that he taught this man became the means for his own supervision. Strangely enough, this is a pattern almost identical to the facts alleged by Etienne in the Louisiana lawsuit. This experience as well as others prompted Broonzy to write a song, the chorus for which went, as follows:
If you’re white, you’re all right,
If you’re brown, stick around,
But as you’re black, oh brother…get back, get back get back.
The song was not well received, even back then, probably because, as now, we suffered the illusion that we live in a meritocracy; that regardless of background, it is hard work and talent that will determine our place in society. But here we are more than three-quarters of a century later finding resonance and social significance in the words of a song, the theme of which should be long dead. So where does this leave us? And where do we go from here? What is the optimal scenario for a race conscious society that also seeks to treat all equitably, regardless of race, ethnicity, or other background? Is a color blind society the optimal solution or by simply convincing ourselves that race or color does not matter would we actually enable racism to continue, even become more pervasive?
It would seem that the first order of inquiry would be whether or not a color blind society is possible and, if so, why such a society would be favored. The simple explanation for a supposed benefit would be one that views all people as people, and not as part of some distinct “other.” But how would this be possible without churning out people void of different backgrounds, perspectives, life experiences, motivations, interests, levels and areas of talent, along with other attributes? Our differences define us and our relationships with and to others. And besides, such a society would be a nightmare, and likely atrophy under the weight of monotony and boredom.
But even if such a color-blind society were to be achieved, the result would be based on delusion. I would maintain that just as purported self-awareness very often leads to self-absorption, so would a commitment to color-blindness likely lead to different forms of de facto racism. This could come about through two forms of color blindness – by those who believe race does not matter, and so turn a blind eye to it and by those who are blind, not to color, but to their own ignorance regarding color.
These two forms would be made up of people who are satisfied either that they “know” about other people and have no need to undertake further inquiry or people who believe there is no need to know about other people because differences are irrelevant. For those people who “know,” the truth becomes the fortress defending them against charges of bias; they simply retain their bias and excuse it, all the while insisting that obvious race-based sentiments have nothing to do with bias. Those who have no need to know, the truly color-blind, transform their bias into a kind of uninformed, shallow sentimentality, such as might be represented in saying, “Ron is not black, he is simply Ron!” When Ron succeeds, he succeeds as Ron. But when Ron fails, he also fails as Ron, even if that is not the case. In either situation, a form of self-imposed, self-gratifying yet potentially harmful solipsism rules the day.
Those who know: When the Cleveland police officers rolled up on Tamir Rice and within two seconds of arriving on the scene shot him dead, they knew that he was black; they knew he was a black teenager; they knew he had a gun, and knew that he was a criminal with the intent and disposition to use the gun that they knew he had. In this case, as well as others, “knowing,” or having such a sense of certainty built upon willful ignorance, was fatal to this 12-year old, as it has been to many others of late.
Recently, there have been many other such shocking and depressing incidents throughout the country, but it would be a mistake to believe that this type of behavior is limited to whites or those acting with the authority to use lethal force. Other forms of pervasive bias exist on a more local level as a form of “knowing,” and though not as extreme, are still prevalent, undermine social harmony and are hurtful.
I have always worked in settings that employed people from many different ethnic backgrounds. I have heard women from Central America describe black women in ways that suggested a lack of self-respect, irresponsibility and promiscuity. When I mention how racist it is to be saying such things the answer I would usually hear is that it is not racist because it is “true.” Likewise, I have heard men from similar backgrounds talk about blacks not being “clean,” and having no shame in saying this, presumably because they “know” it to be true. Again, if it is believed to be true then apparently it cannot be racist.
Of course, those who “know,” really do not know, but live secluded in segregated echo chambers where racist sentiments are reinforced, even encouraged, on a daily basis over many years, and even over entire lifetimes. If nothing else, this is a form of racism, even if not as violent as the racism we are historically accustomed to.
Those who do not need to know: For them, racism/bias is just dumb or beside the point. But in order to adhere to this perspective so easily, it is necessary to create some objective belief that undermines what it purports to profess. In other words, we dismiss differences as irrelevant without appreciating how such differences define us. And we do this by some glib, seemingly objective belief that “people are just people.” This does not work because such an attitude, instead of bringing us closer to an understanding of differences, takes us farther away from such an understanding. As explained in his 1974 essay (What is it like to be a bat?), Thomas Nagel suggests that “If the subjective character of experience is only comprehensible from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity – that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint – does not take us nearer to the real nature of a phenomenon: it takes us further away from it.” In other words, we cannot profess to know a situation is meaningless if we are not willing to immerse ourselves in the circumstances that would test those assumptions. Simply taking a subjective (personal) point of view and applying a general rule based on that view, removes us further from understanding the issue we purport to understand with confidence and resolve. The result is, when a problem surfaces based upon any form of racism, bias or discrimination, we are not engaged or sufficiently empathetic to comprehend its occurrence, its motivation or its impact. Basic human nature would then have us see any such problem with the same perspective and depth as we see and have come to know the person suffering from this problem, namely, any trouble that befalls this person could only be seen as a private, personal matter.
We are — each of us — our own individual phenomenon. But even so, we are defined by the environments in which we live, the cultural backgrounds from which we derive, and the experiences we live through. As the African proverb goes, “I am because we are.” The challenge for all of us is to be as inclusive as possible in the definition of “we,” to respect, appreciate, celebrate and take advantage of our differences, and always recognize that we can never really know what we do not know, and should never objectify what can only be understood by direct experience. As such, inclusivity in all facets of our lives is the key to an open, just and equitable society. And as hard as that may be to create and maintain, it is a critical goal to struggle with and seek to achieve if we are to ever have a society where no one is “too black,” or practicing the wrong religion, or having too strong of an accent, or simply just not being “one of us,” in order to be considered for any standing in any given community, let alone to be considered for a job.
In conclusion, for those who feel that race-conscious sentiments are outdated and that those who give expression to them should simply “get over it, already,” please at least acknowledge the difficulty involved in that. After 260 years of slavery, followed by 100 years of government sanctioned bias, discrimination, and race-targeted violence, including lynching, a mere 50 years of still evolving government prohibitions against private and public discrimination only represents the beginning of a learning and healing process that is still ongoing. Consider also that 360 years of socialization, particularly among those who suffered at its hand and were forced to survive in a social atmosphere where all blacks were considered inferior, but mulattos were less inferior and quadroons less inferior even still, is not so easy to overcome. If African-American women, and other women of color, can still find conversation, let alone value, in attributes such as lighter skin and “good hair,” then we must acknowledge that we still have a long way to go. But as with all change, it must begin with, and the necessary discussions must be framed by, those most affected by these prevailing, disabling, and lingering (maybe even festering) social sentiments. Unfortunately, these sentiments still find expression in situations as varied and geographically dispersed as the murder of a 12-year old black child by police, the chanting of college fraternity members honoring racial exclusion and making light of lynchings, discrimination in the workplace founded on how “black” an employee happens to be, or the refusal to approve a housing application or show an apartment because the interviewer “knows” the truth about who this applicant is and how he or she lives. As such, a productive discussion cannot start at the local Starbucks. It must start with those who live and work together and whose narrowly framed opportunities are only further limited by the way see, respond to, and treat one another in our neighborhoods, places of worship, places of work and play.
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