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The Rhetoric and Reality of Race
By Larry Aubry
Published October 25, 2018

Larry Aubry (File Photo)

In an era in which many claim America is a post-ra­cial society, it is important to debunk that myth by tak­ing an in-depth look at the issues surrounding race, “integration” and, more re­cently, “diversity.”

Many feel the potential for racial integration in the United States is great­er now than ever before. However, the central char­acteristics of race relations, i.e., ambivalence, hypoc­risy and White people’s fundamental fear of Blacks especially, gaining racial equality still exist.

The leaders of the de­segregation social protest movement mobilized mil­lions with a simple de­mand, “freedom.” In the context of a still racially segregated society, post- World War II, freedom meant elimination of all social, political, legal and economic barriers that kept African Americans in a subordinate status.

Implicit in the demand for desegregation (inte­gration) were several as­sumptions: Desegregation would increase opportuni­ties for Blacks in business, government and through­out society; desegregated educational institutions would promote greater ra­cial harmony and under­standing between people from different races, ethnic groups and communities, which in turn would pro­mote residential integra­tion; and affirmative action policies would gradually increase the number of African Americans, Lati­nos and others of color in good paying jobs. It was assumed as African Ameri­cans escaped the ghetto, racial tensions and bigotry would decline significantly and as Blacks were more thoroughly integrated into the economic system, the basis for racial confronta­tion would diminish.

This thesis was funda­mentally flawed in several respects. First, desegre­gation did not benefit the Black community uni­formly- Black professionals and college graduates were the principal beneficiaries. Race continued to matter, especially for poorer Blacks and the unemployed, the poor, and others whose lives were hemmed in by illiteracy, disease and des­peration.

Legal desegregation contributed to the popular illusion that the basis for racial segregation no longer existed. Technically, the abolition of racially sepa­rate residential districts, ho­tels, schools, etc. convinced many White Americans the “Negro question” had been resolved and the pas­sage of anti-discrimination legislation had eliminated all basic impediments to socio-economic and cul­tural advancement of Black Americans.

However, as Black lead­ers continued to speak out against ongoing social in­justices, their complaints were dismissed as self-serving rhetoric. And many whites believed, or said they believed, Blacks them­selves must be racists-a vir­tual impossibility because racism is the ability to con­trol other groups based on race, ethnicity or color.

Arguably, civil rights leadership and the African American political estab­lishment found themselves in a quandary of their own making. Their failure to develop a body of politics that represented a qualita­tive extension of the civil rights movement was di­rectly linked to the paucity of their values, outlook and effectiveness.

One school of thought suggests the weakness of African American leader­ship was its failure to dis­tinguish between ethnicity and race and to apply both terms to the realities of capitalism and the power elite. To this group, Afri­can Americans were both a racial and ethnic group. Therefore, African Ameri­can ethnicity was derived from the cultural synthe­sis of African heritage and experience with American society.

W.E.B. DuBois ob­served more than a cen­tury ago that Black Ameri­cans are both African and American, “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ide­als in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” This central duality is at the core of African American consciousness, forming the fundamental matrix of ex­pressions of African Amer­ican music, art, language, folklore, religious rituals, belief systems, the struc­ture of families and other cultural manifestations and social institutions. In short, Blackness in the cultural context is the expression and affirmation of a set of traditional values, beliefs and social patterns, not their physical appearance or so­cial class. Race is a totally different dynamic rooted in the structures of exploita­tion, power and privilege. It is an artificial social con­struct that was deliberately imposed on various subor­dinated groups of people at the outset of the expansion of European capitalism in the western hemisphere.

The racial conscious­ness and discourse of the West was forged on slave ships carrying human car­gos into the Caribbean and the Americas. The search for agricultural commodi­ties and profits from the ex­treme exploitation of Black people, deemed as less than human, gave birth to the notion of racial inequality.

In the United States, race is frequently defined as a group that has certain physical or biological traits, particularly phenotype (skin color), body structure and facial features. But race has no scientific valid­ity as a meaningful biologi­cal or genetic concept. Its meaning shifts according to the power relationships between “racial” groups. In apartheid South Africa, Japanese people were con­sidered as “White,” where­as, Chinese were classified as “colored.” In Brazil, a person of color could be “White,” “mulatto” or “Black,” depending on the individual’s vocation, in­come, family connections and level of education.

Even in rigidly seg­regated societies like the American South before the modern civil rights move­ment, race was frequently situational—a function not just a physical appearance, but also the explicit or im­plied power relations that connected the individual of color to local realities. In segregated cities such as Washington, D.C., Arab and certain African diplomats were permitted to stay in “Whites only” hotels. Also, African Americans who owned property or who were well respected profes­sionals were occasionally granted social privileges extended solely to whites.

To contend race no lon­ger matters is a monumen­tal mistake that serves to reinforce the barriers to so­cial justice. Blacks can no longer afford to make that mistake.

l.aubry@att.net

Categories: Larry Aubry | Op-Ed | Opinion
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