This book, Race Matters by Cornel West, was one of the first I had to read in a grad school course called Social Change and Higher Education.
Although in academic circles, we know that the term "race" is not a "real" term that refers to biology or the make-up of a human, we know that racism still exists and therefore "race" matters in society. Most academics use ethnicity, but this isn't about words, terms, or their definitions.
Just this week alone, I've had three incidents among my circle of friends and students which illustrate that race still matters. And that although we are in a Post-Civil Rights generation of living, the thoughts and beliefs of Pre-Civil Rights era are still living ghosts in many of our minds.
One, a colleague served on jury duty. She's black, educated, and outspoken, and therefore was very surprised to have been selected to serve on a case where there was a black defendant, a male. Quick summary, defendant faced four years in state prison for what many saw as a self-defense behavior -- a retired cop, white, flashed his gun and knife at defendant, who he deemed had been on an arcade game too long. That's not important. But what IS, is that once the jury convened to deliberate, many of the jurors, non-blacks, immediately said defendant was guilty, that he looked like a liar, and there's no way an ex-cop would initiate trouble. This was before deliberating. Nonetheless, my black, educated, outspoken friend held out, and challenged her fellow jurors to look at their assumptions and attitudes on black men in court. That assertiveness kept a black man out of prison for a first offense, one who has NEVER been in trouble.
Two, a group of my students, including the infamous 1988 Boys, were called the "N" Word while at a local sit-down chain restaurant in Montebello, CA. They were called this by a group of non-black restaurant patrons, who, upon being seated by my students, told restaurant staff very loudly they didn't want to sit by a bunch of "N's" and that Montebello is their "barrio," that blacks have Compton. My students, who I've taught very well, asked that someone be moved before the other patrons' threatening behavior turned into something bigger. Restaurant management, who happened to be same ethnicity as the "N" word users, refused to move anyone. My students asked for the police to be called in case it turned into something bigger. Restaurant management refused to call police. So my students left. Walked out. We're working on following up now.
Finally, this weekend, a bunch of us were out dancing, drinking, dishing, all the normal weekend activity on Saturday. One of my friends, who happens to be of Mexican descent, loves black men. LOVES them. To the point where he's said dating his own people is like dating cousins. Anyway, I know people love who they love, but since my friend loves black men, I decided to ask him what about black mens' history, culture, and life issues does he love. Blank stare. Silence. Crickets. And he said, in a humorous way, "I don't care about their history, I just care about what they do in bed." But you could substitute the ethnicities, change the city, and those beliefs exist anywhere... that the "race" not the substance matters (or is fetished) in these matters.
Of course those three incidents aren't the biggest, or the END-ALL-BE-ALL of civil rights violations. However, they are indicative that in 2007, there are still attitudes and beliefs that don't get unlearned, challenged, or talked about.
At times, it pains me to hear my students (mostly of color) say racism is not a big problem anymore, that this is L.A. the melting-pot (a term I despise), and that today people are equal in L.A. (Ironically, this week, Jasmyne Cannick blogged about black and brown issues in L.A. and L.A. Times) It pains me to hear my black women students say that black men look past them like they're not viable options to date. It pains me to hear women say there's no need for feminism because women are equal and treated fairly in society. I guess the public schools are doing their jobs if people don't know their history and how far they (haven't) come.
And it makes me wonder if we're really moving forward or backward... or if things are good overall, and that there are just a FEW isolated incidents that show that race still matters.