Racism remains in ‘sneakiest forms’

The quote “The time is always right to do what is right” is attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. We will never know Dr. King’s mindset when he made that statement, but it is safe to assume given the civil rights context of the 1950s and ’60s that Dr. King was thinking Jim Crow laws were abhorrent and barriers to voting should be knocked down without delay, as well as employment and education barriers.

From the perspective of 2013, every civil rights gain Americans sweated and bled over seems self-evident. Legal interracial marriage, housing and employment protections. We certainly have made progress in policy and legislation, and even in the intangible factors that allow people to interact as peers, discovering their common humanity beyond their external features.

Why, though, did it take so long to get this far? Why didn’t we legislate equality after the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments? Why did our 19th-century forebears take so unbelievably long opening their minds to the revelation that the time was right to do the right thing? As in Martin Luther King’s era, the time has always been right, but over and over again, we’ve closed our eyes to that truth. The time was right when Europeans peopled this continent, and when our founders drafted the Constitution. It was right when we ventured west, spreading slavery via the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It was right when we legislated the Compromise of 1850. It was right when we gave in to forces pushing the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. It was right when Roger Taney handed down the Dred Scott decision. It was right when Lincoln freed some slaves. It was right in 1896 when Plessy lost his argument asserting that blacks and whites are equal.

Have we absorbed the lessons of history yet?

I want to live in a post-racial America. I want to be a people who can take the long view of history, who can imagine a future that looks back on the present as a time of individuals and organizations working together to eliminate prejudices that still exist but are on their way to extermination. We have daily opportunities to bring this about right here in Chautauqua County by participating in the work of local organizations, by re-thinking our legacy of inherited assumptions, and mostly by listening to people who aren’t just like us.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the obvious example of a local organization advocating for fairness in housing, education, and employment (that’s just part of a diverse mission) in our locale as well as nationally. Membership in the NAACP is open to everyone, and attending the very accessible Juneteenth celebration in Dunkirk this June would be a good way for all of us, in our spectrum of hues, to get acquainted with this 104-year-old organization.

The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) also offers a local outlet for justice activities. The YWCA of Westfield creates year-round programs that further the national organization’s mission of “eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.” Fitness and leisure classes are just part of the lineup of an organization that takes principled action to eliminate poverty, hunger, and other needs right here in this area, for the benefit of all people.

Now that a wide body of legal protections holds discrimination at bay, it’s time to be vigilant about the assumptions that continue to fuel invisible racist attitudes. Too many people still assume a black man in a posh neighborhood is a thief rather than a resident. Or that African-American children are less capable of academic achievement than white children. Or that certain foods are automatically loved by black people. Or that a tall black kid in high school must have basketball on his extracurricular list.

While campaigning in 2008, President Obama recounted the time his grandmother admitted to a fear of black men as they crossed her path in public. This fear is the all-too-common cliche. We have to dismantle this and all the other assumptions that drive our responses to Langston Hughes’ “darker brother.” We lighter siblings can do this without guilt. It is okay to stare down all these inherited assumptions and tell them, “I didn’t ask for you. You are a legacy. I didn’t create you. But I reject you.”

No person alive today is responsible for slavery. And while most of us lighter siblings bear no malice toward our darker brother, we have the power and, I would argue, the responsibility to end racism in its sneakiest forms.

Nobody alive finds it easy to walk in another person’s shoes, but doing so is an important skill we all must cultivate. That’s why we should listen to each other’s stories, and the particular one that should catch the ear is the one in which people are overlooked in food lines, passed over for loans for which they’re qualified, and diminished in a disheartening number of ways because of skin color.

There is still work to do, and the time is as right as it always has been.

Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Her column appears monthly. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com