Carroll County Times
Carroll County Times Opinion

Frank Batavick: Long road to race equality

After President Barack Obama's election as the nation's 44th President in 2008, some pundits waxed that it signaled the end of racism. We had a black President and Oprah was the richest woman in show business, so that proved something, right?

As if to quickly dispel this lofty thought, tea party rallies and websites started sporting images of the President portrayed as an African witch doctor with feathers on his head and a bone through his nose. Apparently reports of racism's death had been greatly exaggerated.


Six years later, we find ourselves awash in incidents of a racial nature. People in Baltimore, New York and other urban centers are marching to protest the grand juries' decisions not to indict in Ferguson, Mo. and New York City following the death of unarmed black men at the hands of white police. Aligned with this story, the St. Louis Rams raised their hands in a "don't shoot" gesture during pre-game introductions recently, as did members of the Congressional Black Caucus on the House floor.

In other news, a new "Star Wars" trailer on YouTube showing a black man portraying an Imperial Stormtrooper released a cascade of vitriol in the website's comments section. One fan decried the "race-mixing" that threatens to ruin his precious fantasy franchise. There are more current stories to be found. Just Google "racism." So why are things still so jangled between the races, and why haven't we gotten beyond skin color in our national conversation?


The reasons are too complicated to list and dissect in one column, but there are some possible generalizations. Fear of the "other" is said to be part of our genetic make-up, a reflexive measure that protected our forbearers from invading tribes in the distant past. Blacks, Hispanics and even Asians nicely fill this "other" category.

There may also be a fear that white political power is ebbing away as demographics change across the country. Obama's election certainly didn't dispel this perception. In attempting to explain the Obama-as-witch doctor images, Spelman College history professor William Jelani Cobb offered, "Now we have a black president, which means, on its most basic level, that a black man has more power than any single white citizen in this country … Whether people want to admit it or not, I suspect the tea party crowd believes that the currency of whiteness has been devalued."

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The next reason is economic. After their Great Migration north, blacks started vying for blue collar manufacturing and craft jobs. Subsequent generations of African Americans earned advanced degrees and entered the professional class. In some cases enrollment and hiring quotas were used to give blacks a leg up, causing animosity among whites competing for the same schools and jobs. Perception was often stronger than reality.

There is also the belief that too many blacks are getting something for nothing by milking "the system." Think President Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" meme. This, despite the fact that African-Americans make up 22 percent of the poor, yet receive only 14 percent of government benefits, while white non-Hispanics make up 42 percent of the poor and receive 69 percent of government benefits, according to a Feb. 2012 New York Times Economix blog.

We next broach a rather indelicate topic: sex. Although the multi-hued complexions of America's blacks are proof of which race excelled at using sex as a weapon during our not-so-proud past, some whites fear that black males are, crudely put, "after our women." The increase in mixed-race marriages and the recent controversy surrounding one-time cultural icon Bill Cosby have certainly not helped defuse this issue.

Lastly, we arrive at education. One of the most potent messages in this regard comes in the form of a song, "You've Got to Be Taught" from South Pacific. Today's racists didn't start out that way. They had to be carefully taught before they were "six or seven or eight" "to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a diff'rent shade."

So, is the future bleak for achieving color-blindness in America? Maybe not. Just as attitudes toward gay marriage have shifted broadly in the last 10 years, so have attitudes toward race equality. In a 2014 research study conducted by MTV Strategic Insights among so-called millennials, or those who reached young adulthood around the year 2000, "84 percent say their family taught them that everyone should be treated the same, no matter what their race." And "72 percent believe their generation believes in equality more than older people."

To paraphrase Shakespeare's Cassius, "The fault, dear reader, is not in our black brothers and sisters, but in ourselves if we are racists." Perhaps comedian Chris Rock summed up this state of affairs best in a recent New York magazine interview: "When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it's all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they're not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before … (Obama's presidency) is "not black progress. That's white progress."


Frank J. Batavick, of Westminster, is a member of the Carroll County Times Op-Ed Writers Group.