, Newburyport, MA

August 14, 2013

Takes more than laws to erase racism

Newburyport Daily News

---- — To the editor:

I appreciate Alfred Moskowitz’s response to my Martin-Zimmerman commentary. While there is some truth to what he says — that legislation has an effect on behavior — he overestimates the extent to which today’s Americans are more “tolerant and accepting of racial differences than my [Moskowitz’s] generation.” Historically speaking, racism has been redirected and sublimated more than eradicated.

Our national myth of the Invading Other substitutes in a new ethnic group every few decades: the Irish, then the Italians, then the blacks, then the Muslims and Mexicans and Hispanics. Once it becomes illegal or socially disadvantageous to be openly prejudiced towards one group, we choose another. Sometimes, we use non-racial issues to express our racism. For instance, prejudice and stereotyping of the welfare class is at least partially a veiled xenophobia.

Sublimated racism is my generation’s zeitgeist. We profess acceptance and tolerance, but often only superficially. Living in a culture where open racism is taboo is more complex than it seems on the surface. I have experienced, for example, feeling more righteous when helping out a black stranger than a white one. One might say that this “behavioral affirmative action” is a necessary step toward diversity, but I see it as a means of dodging the issue of racism. It helps us avoid both legal and moral persecution.

I am tense when an Arabic man walks on the plane; frustrated when the Latina desk clerk speaks broken English; cautious when my friends and I are the only white kids on the T. None of this is illegal. Legislation can’t stop me. Yet there is something wrong here. Every time we allow fear and racism to manifest itself internally, the chances increase that an armed vigilante will follow a black teenager down the street.

Hostile fear is one instinctual response to the unknown, which is why we are defensively afraid of those who look, talk and act differently; those whom we can’t understand or relate to. Racism, in other words, is a lack of empathy.

Legislation does not teach empathy; conversation and storytelling do. That is why children are taught the story of Martin Luther King Jr. instead of the tenets of the Voting Rights Act. Symbols (in the form of people and stories) are just as, if not more, important than legislation in the context of social issues.

After all, race-related legislation is hugely indebted to the Dr. Kings, Emmett Tills, Malcolm Xes, and Trayvon Martins — that is, the symbols of unrest in America. Let us not forget, too, the artistic providers of symbols, the Langston Hugheses and Toni Morrisons and Biggie Smalls. For legislation does not humanize; humans do. Where would we be today if conversations sparked and influenced by these symbols were dismissed as inefficacious?

While I agree with Mr. Moskowitz that law ought to be an important concern in the Martin-Zimmerman crisis, the conversation ought to be allowed many more possibilities, lest faith in statist myths inhibit our progress towards social harmony.

Joe D’Amore Jr.