On Race in America

Posted: October 15, 2010 in Uncategorized

Right after the election of President Obama, we were all asking ourselves very seriously “Do we live in a post-racial America?” Whether it be the debate surrounding racist elements in the Tea Party or the infamous “Beer Summit” and the incident that sparked it, I think the answer is quite clear: we have made significant strides in racial issues over the last decades, and though we haven’t gone far enough to claim a post-racial status, as a nation we are willing to give minorities opportunities not afforded to them in decades past, we aware of racism and of its ugly side, and we do strive to banish it from our society.

But in asking this question, I think we are missing the real issue, the real question. What we really should be asking ourselves is if we live in an America where tolerance—whether it be on race, religion, or sexuality—is embedded in our culture, in the minds of each and every American. I think the answer to this question is also quite clear. Despite the aforementioned successes with racial issues, we have left many behind and treated them as lesser citizens because of their creed, sexual orientation, or national origin. I want to look at two recent issues to illustrate my point. (I will omit the issue of national origin, because I don’t think it’s a clear cut case of prejudice. I do think that plays a role, but the case is confounded by a misunderstanding that illegal immigrants have an overall negative effect on the economy: See two  Factcheck.org articles (1 2) for more.

The first issue I want to bring to light is that of homosexual rights. The most salient topic in this debate is marriage. The debate has been framed in practical terms, and I think that has a large effect on the way we view the issue. We talk about spousal rights—the right to make medical decisions for their partners, not testify against them in court, or refute wishes of disapproving family members—and we offer civil unions legislation as a compromise. While that may be well-meaning, many people fail to realize that the issue isn’t only about these practical issues. It’s about not wanting to feel like a second-class citizen. It’s about the fact that the heterosexual majority in America looks at the homosexual minority and, for one reason or another, says, “That’s ours. You can’t have it.” I understand that many believe that marriage is a sacred institution, and that gay marriage undermines its sanctity. I understand that many believe that homosexuality is repulsive and violation of nature. But we can’t confuse religious doctrine with sound policy. To do so is to compromise the very fundamentals of our democracy. (Look at it this way: if we really thought that religious doctrine was a good basis for government, we should have no problem with Sharia law in a country where Islam is the dominant religion.) Let me be clear; there is no good legal or rational argument against gay marriage. This is especially true when weighed against the retraction of our core beliefs as a nation.

I could discuss several other topics such as guarantees of employment, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and other discrimination issues. But the issue goes far beyond the issue of rights; it cuts deep into the treatment of homosexuals in General. The fact is that the LGBT community represents a persecuted minority. The recent issues regarding bullying (more correctly, harassment) and suicide should be all the evidence needed to show the persecution and stigma attached to homosexuality. While many straight teenagers also commit suicide due to bullying, there is a specific risk for homosexuals: harassment won’t necessarily stop after high-school. The blog “Chris Armstrong Watch” proves it. Run by Andrew Shirvell, the blog—despite his claims that it part of a political campaign—is clear harassment against University of Michigan’s first openly gay student government president. Even a nominee for Governor of New York, Carl Paladino, has said recently that he doesn’t want children “to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid or successful option [compared with heterosexuality]. … it isn’t.” Even in his apology, he implies that some homosexuals are intent on brainwashing our children, saying “Any reference to branding an entire community based on a small representation of them is wrong.” There are countless more examples of tactless, insensitive, and flat out bigoted comments made by politicians, radio hosts, and others. There are of course countless others, many of whom are straight, many of whom are religious that come to the defense of the LGBT community, but we still have failed to make significant progress in LGBT civil rights

The second issue is that of the “Mosque at Ground Zero.” Sadly, it is an issue where prejudice cuts across all sectors of American society: Time reported that 61% of Americans opposed the construction of the mosque in mid-August, and “more than 70% concur[ed] with the premise that proceeding with the plan would be an insult to the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center.” That statistic alone is offensive in and of itself—it disregards the obvious fact that Muslims were killed in the attacks (About.com puts the number at “several dozen” and lists 31 names/bio data). More importantly, millions of American Muslims saw their religion attacked that day, and they were helpless to stop it. The internal conflict in Islam right now is a hard battle, with moderates struggling to weed out the extremists. But many American citizens aren’t helping them fight that battle by supporting sects of Islam, which are moderate and embrace many of the reforms called for by the western world; they’re making it more difficult by lobbing accusations of terrorism at moderate Muslims who must be successful if the war on terror is to be won. More than mere accusations, there have been many reports of violence against Muslims, including 1,714 hate crimes reported to the Council on American-Islamic Relations nationwide since 9/11.

The unfortunate truth is that the debate is a microcosm of American attitude towards Muslims in general. Some say that the mosque is simply too close and they would be better off building somewhere else. The problem is that other communities are sending the same message: “You can build, but build somewhere else.” No case illustrates this better than Murfreesboro, TN, where controversy over mosque expansion rages, and a fire at the construction site was ruled arson. (Note, however, it is currently unclear who set the fire and the motivations behind the arson). The key parallel here is that both the mosque Murfreesboro and the one in New York City have existed peacefully in their respective communities for decades, making accusations that they practice a hostile form of Islam not only misinformed and unfounded, but profoundly irresponsible. It also betrays the ignorance of many people who oppose these mosques. They don’t seem to understand that extremist factions exist in every religion, and they don’t take the time to form a nuanced understanding of Muslim-Americans and Islam as a whole. Consider a video from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria: in it, he describes how Muslim Sufis have been persecuted by Al Qaeda and Islamic extremists. This is also the sect, to which Imam Rauf (imam of the proposed mosque at Ground Zero) belongs. It’s hard to understand how this form of Islam could be confused with those forms practiced by radicals. But just today, Bill O’Reilly proclaimed on The View that it was inappropriate to build a mosque near Ground Zero because “Muslims killed us on 9/11”.

Those who oppose the mosque at Ground Zero make two additional claims that betray their ignorance and show their prejudice. The first is the claim that it would be just as insulting as if the Japanese built a Buddhist or Shinto shrine at Pearl Harbor. If that such an instance were that infuriating, they would surely be aware that a Shinto shrine already exists at Pearl Harbor (see this for more). The second claim is that Muslim countries are extremely intolerant of Christian and Jewish places of worship. I submit for your consideration another video detailing the reconstruction of a synagogue in Beirut, which was even supported by Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States government. Hezbollah says that they support the reconstruction because their issue is not with Judaism, but with the Israeli occupation of Arab lands. (Contrast this view with the views of the Florida pastor who wanted to burn the Quran to protest the attacks of 9/11.) Taken together, we can see how these claims aren’t rooted in fact, but on assumptions and prejudice. That is, the lack of motivation to seek out the truth of their claims gives us an insight into the driving force behind them. Thankfully, the burning of Qurans did not find widespread support, but the truth is that many remain suspicious of Muslims in the United States. Again, there are many Americans who have supported the Muslim community every step of the way, but we haven’t gone far enough in changing the attitudes

What does all this tell us? It tells us that we have a long way to go. In the above discussion, I realize that I may have painted America with a broad brush, and my characterization of America is by admission far too simplistic. But even if it is, the national debate on homosexuality and Islam does give us a glimpse into our shortcomings. We ask ourselves if we are where we need to be on race, but if we want to address the issue of race and racism in America honestly, we first must address a sub-culture that not only allows, but even endorses discrimination and prejudice in any case. For if we allow intolerance against one group, we legitimatize it, and it will continue against all groups.


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