When I worked in journalism, one of my editors was fond of asking us whether we’d understood the question. For every story, he said, there was always a fundamental question at each moment (it changed over time) which revealed what we were afraid to face, and therefore, where the story was going to end.
I read Leonard Pitts not because I agree with him, although I think I’m with him for up to 40% of each column, but because he has his finger on the question most of the time. Of course, he only writes about a single issue: race, or being black in America. But still, notice how he nails it here.
Psychology professor Richard Eibach was reported last year in the Washington Post as having found that in judging racial progress, white people and black ones tend to use different yardsticks. Whites use the yardstick of how far we have come from the nation we used to be. Blacks use the yardstick of how far we have yet to go to be the nation we ought to be.
The most complete picture, of course, requires both measures. But who can be surprised that blacks and whites each tend to gravitate toward the measure that is most forgiving of their individual groups, that shoves the onus for change off on the other? The black yardstick, after all, leaves black people no obligation other than to demand justice and equality from white people. The white yardstick requires of white people only that they exhort black people to become more self-reliant and take more responsibility for their own problems.
But what if you are an American who realizes there is no either/or here, no need to buy into a false dichotomy that requires you to choose one yardstick over the other?
I have another supposition here for Mr. Pitts:
The white yardstick is the one white people apply to themselves. Caucasians are notoriously cold-blooded about failure; it happens, someone writes a poem, and then we move on. We know that people all around us fail. We’re used to see high intelligences become unstable and detonate. So we keep moving forward and trust in the reward for those who are smarter, stronger, healthier, and more disciplined than others.
We’ve applied the white yardstick to groups like Italians, the Irish, Greeks, etc. as they’ve come into our country. The reigning Caucasian hierarchy, which was like the founders of the USA English-German-Dutch, was not impressed with the places from which these people came, and figured that many would bring their failure with them, so discriminated against them. This discrimination worked like natural selection and winnowed out the failures, leaving the strongest from these populations.
Hint to black America: once white people feel the playing field is roughly level, they’re going to leave it up to nature. And now that we have a black president, a black billionaire, black people on TV and in the news, they feel it’s level. Sure, there are going to be some who pander to your vote, but the American middle class has moved on. In their view, slavery and the guilt-wound opened is over; they’re going to do what they do, and hope you do what you do well.
They’re also sick of this attitude:
If you hear racist sentiments being aired among white co-workers, question them on their statements.
Simply ask the person how they reached the conclusion they have about that ethnic or racial group. They will self-correct if they become uncomfortable often enough.
Obviously, the act of self-censoring isn’t a signal that they have been magically “cured” of their racism, but it will give them something to think about the next time they open their mouths. And self-censoring often enough may well cause them to reflect more deeply on their prejudices during quiet times at home. It’s a first step.
All of us (not just white folks) need to learn how to go beyond the concerns of the specific community to which we belong and recognize that when one group is discriminated against, it is an affront to us all.
Not all of us agree it’s an affront to us all. We’re concerned with ourselves, our families, our local communities, and our communities of value (churches, programming guilds, National Guard, etc.). We view the right path as one that rewards the best and ignores or destroys the least healthy, intelligent, and disciplined/organized. That’s natural selection and we think it’s fair.
Race profiteering, or using implied white guilt to passive-aggressively extract money or power from them, is over. It died with the ascension of Barack Obama. It’s dying even harder as people are starting to look at our bankrupt government more critically, and realizing that our social welfare programs consume over a third of our budget and yet produce zero reward that’s lasting — in other words, that improves us as a society, instead of simply subsidizing our failures, whether they’re white or black or in-between.