A few weeks ago, a former colleague I have known for more than 20 years called me a racist in a Facebook post because I did not agree with all of President Barack Obama’s policies, especially his foreign policy that consists primarily of strategic dithering.
This is an educated black woman with whom I had a good working relationship for many years, until that post and that charge of racism. I chose not to respond because there was no way we were going to have a meaningful dialogue about race or much of anything else after that.
What is interesting about this particular incident is that I also disagreed with George W. Bush and some of his foreign policy initiatives when he was president, especially certain aspects of his handling of the war in Iraq. Yet no one called me a racist when I expressed those opinions.
So what changed here? Was it me? Was it my colleague? Or was it because Obama is our first black president and many choose to not see beyond his race while attributing any criticism of him or his policies to racism, especially if the criticism comes from someone who is white?
My recent experience, coupled with several other race-related incidents of late, is a clear indication that in this country we are unable to talk about race in a civilized manner. Discussing race is not something that we do naturally, or comfortably, or with much grace. In fact, in most discussions about race there are no winners — only angry and frustrated people on all sides.
Many whites are so concerned about being labeled a “racist” that they go to extraordinary means to either avoid discussing race or, like Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, try to impose their own guilt on others by seeking a collective confession, as he did recently by urging his baristas to write “#RaceTogether” on coffee cups to promote discussions about race.
The biggest drawback to the ill-fated Starbucks gimmick was that it carried with it a presumption of racism. Schultz even said so himself, although he used “bias” as a code word for “racism” in his announcement. That is, anyone who ventured into a Starbucks store merely seeking a cup of coffee should have, by Schultz’s reckoning, considered themselves a racist, especially if they chose not to engage in any sort of conversation about race or ethnicity.
That is not unlike walking into a courtroom and the judge declaring before a trial even begins: “You’re guilty until you prove yourself innocent.” Implicit in the legal system is the supposed presumption of innocence until proven guilty, although it doesn’t always work that way in some courts and with some crimes. The presumption of guilt in a courtroom — or in the case of the Starbucks campaign a presumption of racism — is a no-win situation for all involved. Once the term is pinned on you, it is virtually impossible to lose.
Then there is the faux contretemps over the cover of a University of North Georgia publication for Professional and Continuing Education courses showing four people dressed in business attire in a race. One white man is crossing the finish line; another is in second, while a white woman and a black man lag behind them. “Why follow when you can lead!” read the cover, before the photo was changed.
Some number of people looked at the cover and immediately cried “racism” and “discrimination” because of the placement of the individuals in the photo. My sense is that whoever did the cover simply looked at the photo and saw four people, not two white men, a white woman and a black man. But some people who can only deal with others according to their gender, race or ethnicity instead of simply looking at them as human beings immediately pulled out the race card and used it like a hand grenade to inflict damage wherever they could.
But was the choice of that photo racist or discriminator? Hardly. Was it insensitive? Probably, if for no other reason that these days we must all apparently be mindful of what might offend someone.
Sen. Dick Durbin, (D-Ill, recently tossed one of those race-based hand grenades into the Senate when he claimed the Republicans were racist for delaying the confirmation of Loretta Lynch as the next U.S. attorney general. Lynch is black. This is the same Durbin who in 2005 voted against Condeleeza Rice for secretary of state. So was that anti-Rice vote racist or simply based on partisan politics? Or were these two incidents a clear case of hypocrisy when it comes to dealing with issues of race and gender?
As I have told my students many times over the years, the words “racism” and “racist” have been used so indiscriminately in recent decades that they have become almost useless in our lexicon. Racism at its core means the belief in the inherent racial superiority of one race over other races. Yet these days the term “racism” has been so diluted that it is used to cover all manner of sins, from bigotry to prejudice to discrimination to hurt feelings over a perceived slight, the latter being the case with the UNG publication.
Were the Ferguson, Mo., police racists or were they bigots for targeting blacks in their community? I would argue the latter based on the strict definition of the word.
Were the Sigma Alpha Epsilon members at the University of Oklahoma caught on video racist or bigoted? They certainly were stupid and immature and the song they were singing was racially charged. But again. I would argue that based on the true definition of the words, they were demonstrating behavior that was both bigoted and prejudicial but not necessarily racist.
Everyone has biases and prejudices, but that does not mean that they are all negative. I am biased against people who talk too much, don’t bathe regularly and don’t use their turn signals when driving. I am prejudiced against men who abuse women, men and women who abuse children, and police who abuse their authority.
I would like to think that my biases and prejudices are focused more on how people behave rather than on their race, ethnicity or gender. Treating people as individuals rather than as members of a particular group seems a more meaningful and morally proper way of dealing with others.
Will I stop communicating with my friend? I have, for a while.
Will I stop going to Starbucks? Probably not, especially now that I don’t have to worry about some hipster barista trying to engage a grumpy old white guy in some sort of racial dialogue. And to get my Venti Iced Skinny Hazelnut Macchiato, Sugar-Free Syrup, Extra Shot, Light Ice, No Whip, No #RaceTogether.
Ron Martz is a former journalist and educator and a Northeast Georgia resident. His commentaries will appear frequently on Viewpoint.