Sunday, April 24, 2016

Why Racial Turmoil?


Racial divisions have lately been in the news with many protests against police rampages in black communities.

Harvard University has responded to these major injustices by putting on one of its buildings a small plaque that commemorates four slaves who served presidents of the University in the 1700s. Portions of our cities are torn apart by gang wars, by unjust incarceration, by appalling poverty and Harvard University commemorates four slaves who lived more than  300 years ago!

What a striking example of how little justice and equality matter to our leaders! A university that has on its staff eminent philosophers, historians, sociologists, political scientists, students of education could have called together all these scholars to make a careful analysis of our racial problems and to make concrete proposals for overcoming them.

What would we have expected one of the world's most eminent universities to ask? Our nation has been and continues to be torn apart by racial hatred and, to tell the truth, we don’t understand that condition. From our origins, as a nation that used slaves to create wealth, to a nation that is officially dedicated to racial justice while, in reality, large numbers of whites distrust blacks and disrespect them, we have consistently been unable to understand why we continue to be plagued by the scourge of racial hatred.

In different periods of our history, our inability to overcome racial divisions will most likely have different histories and origins. How can we possibly understand why after the heroic years of civil rights struggles in the last century and after electing a black man as president of our country, the cancer of racial distrust keeps eating away at our soul?

Why is it impossible for us whites to live our lives contented and proud without despising others and believing lies about them?

These are clearly important questions to ask. What is the matter with white people in America that they cannot be happy unless they invent spurious reasons for looking down on their fellow citizens who are not white? Why must they disrespect others in order to respect themselves?

Answers to these questions are not easy to find. Which answers are reliable will be especially difficult to ascertain. But here are some obvious ideas:

For many Americans, their work life is repetitive and tedious. They do not receive the respect they deserve from their employers and often from the people they provide services for. Gaining self-respect under those conditions is really difficult.

"America’s business is business" said Pres. Calvin Coolidge. Many Americans echo that pathetic platitude. But if I am not the owner of a business, what is my source of self-esteem? We have different answers to that question. We treat ordinary citizens as consumers but being a consumer is not an occupation that strengthens your self-respect. You cannot walk down the street with your head held high because you bought the latest electronic gadget.

Alternatively, the role of citizens is to help enrich the owners of the businesses they work for by getting paid as little as possible. That too is hardly designed to make employees feel proud and valued.

There may well be other reasons why it is difficult for white men and women to feel confident in themselves. Whatever the reasons, we are experiencing a major crisis of self-respect. Recent statistics show a steady increase in the number of suicides in America. Every year more men and women, and even children, decide that their lives are not worth living and kill themselves.

And those who do not commit suicide frequently need to bolster their failing self-esteem by reminding themselves that at least their skin is white or, at least, that the government pretends that their skin is white.

Instead of installing memorial plaques, perhaps Harvard University can rally its intellectual resources to ask why Americans in large numbers cannot bear their lives at all or can bear their lives only by tormenting others. If we could answer that question, perhaps we could begin to confront and resolve our racial hatreds.