Saturday, April 7, 2012

When they say "It isn't about race" you can bet it is.

A letter to the editor this week asked that we take “race “ out of the debate over the killing of Trayvon Martin. Can we take race out of the debate when we know that if the shooter were black and the dead body white, there would have been an arrest?  A black man with the gun would be required to prove his self-defense claim in a court of law.  Who then would have asked us to take race out of the debate? Would there even have been a debate?

Two months ago in Cheyenne a Hispanic mother killed herself and her daughter because of an unjust, racist immigration policy. A local business employed the mother and others who were targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). When the decision was made to enforce the law, as always, if anyone was going to be in trouble with the law-enforcers, it was going to be the workers, not those who employed them.

Those we pay to enforce the unjust law raided her home and threatened to have her deported even though federal law precluded her deportation because she was a victim of domestic violence. She surrendered her own life and that of her child rather than be sent back to a community where they would likely be killed anyway by a violent, psychotic spouse.

The deaths of a mother and daughter become easier to tolerate if we just take race out of the discussion. Take race out of that conversation and she’s nothing more than an illegal immigrant. We can put her and her daughter in the same compartment some would like to put Trayvon. “It is not about race,” we can shout. “It’s about the law and lawbreakers.”

We white people have a uniquely white ability to compartmentalize these things. That ability is itself racist in nature.  When white people say it’s not about “race” you can bet it is. Take race out of these questions and we get to ignore the fact that all the institutions we created for lawmaking, law-enforcing and law-imposing were established to protect white privilege. Sometimes consciously, often subconsciously, we like the benefits of being white and are not about to give them up by allowing an issue like this to implicate race.

If it’s not about race, why do the results fall most heavily on people of color?  The ICE raid targeted employees of a local business, one that employed undocumented workers. Where is the outrage about that? There have been no calls for enforcement of that law. The homes of the employees, not the place of business of the employer, were raided. Their lives and futures were threatened but not the employer who hired them…that’s white privilege.

That’s also racism. Racism is the use of political, legal, economic and social power to limit the rights and opportunities of people who are different.

Racism in overt form as it once existed is rare. Slavery and Jim Crow are history. Gone are the “Whites Only” signs over the water fountains. The right to vote has been secured for people of color. Not near as many people of color are lynched these days. But racism remains, enshrined in immigration law, in federal sentencing guidelines, racial profiling and in laws allowing some to shoot others to death in order to “stand your ground.”

Look honestly at the racial disparity that exists in everything from employment and education to housing, law enforcement, incarceration, foster care, juvenile justice and more. If race is not the reason, why do the negative statistics always fall most heavily on people of color? Accident? Natural consequences of capitalism? No. It’s racism.

We can’t have an honest dialogue about how race if white people insist that race be removed from the debate. Instead we should consider finally facing the facts and ending the racism.


  1. If you are in doubt about these points, please read "The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabelle Wilkerson, which is very positively reviewed and tells of the black migrations from the south and of the participants experiences across the last several centuries in all corners of our country. Not many of us would choose those experiences and it is terribly convenient that we ignore that they are real.

  2. You've made a provocative plea, but it's not a plea to end racial discrimination. Race is a misnomer. If people can interbreed, as we now know even homo sapiens could with neanderthals, then they're not part of different races. What you've called "race" is cultural differences between groups who don't always look different. That is "ethnicity." The woman who took her own life and that of her child was not part of a different race. She was from a different country where Spanish is the most prevalent language and Catholicism is the most prevalent religion. That made her culturally different from people in most parts of the US, but she'd have been quite at home in large parts of South Florida, South Texas, or Southern California. The US has always had a fragmented culture. We are "united" politically, but more competitive with each other than united in every other way. Here languages compete for speakers. Religions compete for members. Individuals compete for educations, careers, wealth, prestige and, yes, citizenship.

    Most illegal immigrants get deported over and over again, but they persist if they think it's worth it to them. Crossing the border illegally can be risky, but it's not the end of the world if you get caught. She committed suicide and homicide because she was mentally ill. There's no way to get around that last part. People who are just economically desperate don't kill their children. She was being sent home because developed welfare states won't tolerate immigration unless those immigrants already have the skills to earn more than the average citizen in those developed states. Otherwise, unemployed citizens revolt. We've seen the worst ethnic conflict in the US where more established ethnic groups resisted competition from newcomers. That includes the obvious Native Americans taking on the Europeans, but English vs German, Protestant vs Catholic, Italians, Irish, and Poles vs established English and German immigrants, then there's the freed subSaharan African slaves. The more we harp on those differences as though they have some kind of permanent genetic foundation, though, the harder it gets to overcome those differences.

    I'm very surprised that Trayvon Martin's shooting isn't more of a rallying cry for gun control advocates. Gun nuts have been pushing laws to make carrying concealed weapons legal everywhere. People who go around with concealed weapons often have fantasies where they become heroes in showdowns with "bad guys." This neighborhood watch "captain" was an obvious wannabe cop who was out looking for, no, HOPING for, trouble. Eventually the feds will insist on prosecuting him because of public outrage over the local prosecutor's cavalier attitude. Trayvon Martin was an unfortunate teen-aged stranger wearing a hoodie. He crossed paths with a paranoid gun nut looking for an excuse to be a hero. Vilify the gun nut and gun nut culture. Vilify the local prosecutor for being soft-headed. Vilify the Old South's irrational segregationalist traditions that made people afraid of each other.

    Just don't be so quick to shout racism. It doesn't solve any problems. It provokes ethnic conflict where there are other issues at play, issues that need to be resolved by people with the dispassionate courage required to tackle serious problems.

    By the way, "white people" don't all think in materialistic terms, psychologically compartmentalizing their lives, etc. That is, actually, a racist statement. Why not, more accurately, say "secular, college educated people from the suburbs who like to call themselves 'professionals.'" Trust me, those people are more of a problem for us earnest, spiritual types than whites, blacks, Hispanics, or any of those other misleading group labels.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful writing from the Equality State. So sad to hear about the death of this woman in Cheyenne. Where are the community-based support services in SE Wyoming?