America still requires serious discussion on race issues
I am unsure if yesterday’s column regarding race relations in America, entitled “Recognize infrequency of racism,” is a sincere opinion or an attempt to draw a response.
First, the piece equates American society’s negative attitudes toward Hispanic and African-Americans in poverty with Caucasians in poverty. The author says the audience’s fear of running into a group of black people in a poverty-stricken neighborhood is not unlike the negative attitude of whites depicted in “The Jerry Springer Show.” He does not address the institutions that force minority groups into socioeconomic situations disproportionately. Scholars have documented how the criminal justice system still too frequently punishes minority groups differently. Not too much is mentioned in the column about the inequality present in the American education system, besides falsely painting affirmative action as the last vestige of racism in academia. The piece chooses to mention sleazy reality and talk shows rather than address how the media continues to systematically reinforce racial attitudes through biased news coverage and an iceberg of subtext in popular entertainment.
However, what is more interesting is how the column frames racism in terms of fault and intent. The author implies that if one group of people is “inadvertently” shafted, it is not an issue of racism if the supposed perpetrator did not intend it. By that reasoning, if a large workplace never hires a Hispanic person, it is only a problem if management explicitly through instruction resists hiring Hispanics.
The question of intent encourages a person to look the other way rather than be self-critical and self-aware of the full ramifications of their actions. Speculating over true intentions as a racism barometer draws the issue away from the action itself. Focus on intent puts a human face on the offender rather than the offended and discourages people from coming up with solutions or looking at the bigger problem. An act can be racist on its own merits. The role of Asian Americans is one issue that is merely addressed in the column by illustrating the perception of Asian Americans in popular culture. What is not addressed is the fact that the Asian-American population is a very heterogeneous group that is living on the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment and the inevitable xenophobia that exists after the country’s wars with Asian nations. The column frames Asians as the one minority group that “made it,” despite the reality that some Asian Americans are recovering much more slowly than their Caucasian counterparts in the current economic situation. Today’s media culture broadly depicts Asians and Asian Americans as the impending threat, if not marginal or invisible. The constructed reality of Asian success fosters real anger and fear against real people, embodied in incidents like the Vincent Chin murder. The exaggerated cloud of Chinese or Indian hegemony ultimately hurts every American by distracting them from a more complicated issue.
Most Asian-American activists and leaders are very aware that their stories should not merely be distorted and repurposed as an excuse to deny their fellow citizens social reforms. The need for a mature discussion on racism is still very much a real need, considering how racialized and toxic our political rhetoric remains with respect to immigration, jobs, justice and terrorism. All Americans are poorly served by the current behavior of the media, which dumbs down and cheapens the question of race. Until media institutions willfully choose to approach the question of race seriously, responsibility lies in Americans to educate themselves on the subject with the abundant information which is already available. Ultimately, despite the nation’s insidious racism, the story of the continuing struggle to achieve equality and dignity remains a much more compelling American story. And it’s a story that does not exclusively belong in the past.
Roger Sheng is a Rutgers College Class of 2009 alumnus.