Race Relations and the Symptoms of a Wounded Nation

by Sarah Bosha - Posts (4). Posted Monday, March 11th, 2013 at 3:51 pm

The first time I saw the wall was at an academic debate on diversity in college admissions. I went to hear some viewpoints on what it meant to be black, white, Latino, Asian, or anything else in America. But what I heard was not a debate on diversity, but a carefully navigated, walking-on-eggshells discussion of race.  I had never noticed it before, but there it was – an invisible wall between black and white students, which everyone was trying to ignore, but kept inadvertently bumping into as they tried to stick within the socially acceptable boundaries of conversation.

In particular, the debate was examining the recent case of Fisher v University of Texas at Austin, which is awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court.  Ms. Fisher is a white female student who claims she was discriminated against in her bid to attend the University of Texas because the school’s affirmative action policy favored minority applicants over white students.

Affirmative action is a policy that is meant to provide opportunities to groups that have traditionally been discriminated against. It is aimed at remedying the effects of past policies and institutions that fostered racial or gender discrimination and resulted in socio-economic differences that persist today. The policy has been controversial and faced many legal challenges.

The Supreme Court has ruled that race can be considered as a factor in university admissions, but it has also struck down affirmative action policies that relied on race quotas (reserving a specific number of spots for minority groups) or a points system (awarding more points to applicants for being members of a minority group).

I am personally a strong supporter of affirmative action, which I think goes a long way in advancing the recognition of human dignity regardless of race or sex. Perhaps as a result, I found many of the arguments made by the team against affirmative action simplistic and unconvincing. For example, they argued that black students admitted as a result of affirmative action often could not cope with the level of studies required, whereas if they had competed on merit they would have been placed in programs more suited to their academic level.  They also posed a question: one of the supposed benefits of affirmative action is to expose people to other backgrounds and perspectives, but how effective is that when racial groups tend to self-segregate rather than mixing on campus?

What stood out to me most from the debate, however, were not the arguments for or against affirmative action, but the way this debate on diversity very quickly became about black and white, and the amount of tension and taboo that was evident in how the speakers talked about race.

Coming from a country with a predominantly black population, having attended a school with all black students, and coming from Africa in general, I have never really had to confront the tension of race relations on a personal level.   But as I sat listening to this debate, hearing the speakers walking on eggshells as they navigated their arguments, that invisible wall between the races that exists in America suddenly began to feel quite opaque.

It made me wonder why America’s young generation had inherited so much race baggage. How did this racial tension arise again hundreds of years after the abolition of slavery and decades after the end of segregation? More importantly why didn’t anybody want to talk about it openly and frankly?

In Zimbabwe and South Africa, race and affirmative action are much simpler.  I have known people to speak openly about black and white and what each group felt was an entitlement or what was a wrong against them.  In South Africa the whole nation faced the past of apartheid and sought to talk about it to make amends and somehow forge a common unified future through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The last political leader of apartheid South Africa F.W. De Klerk apologized on behalf of the whites and the nation began to heal and unify.

But in America, somewhere along the line somebody said it was not okay to talk about what bothers one race about the other.  Somehow someone said you shouldn’t say that you are frustrated if it seems like universities, in implementing a “diversity” policy, have made you feel marginalized as a white person, or that as a black person at a good university it’s assumed you are part of the diversity quota and no one would think your academic credentials are as good as those of the white students!

And the result is that this tension escapes in other ways. On the night of President Obama’s reelection, a crowd of students, angry about the outcome, shouted racial slurs and taunted other students, according to USA Today. The next night, another group of students held a candlelight vigil to denounce the acts. As the school’s chancellor Dan Jones told USA Today, “Race is a complicated issue in our country.”

I remember a conversation with a white American student who was applying to study medicine at various colleges; the one he particularly wanted asked him to talk about how he views diversity in himself.  With a little dejection he said to me, “What am I supposed to say? All I am is a white boy with white parents who grew up in surburbia? I have a friend who lived the exact same suburban life I did but because he is 1/8th black, he gets to tick the diversity box!”

There are still deep-held tensions on both sides – if they’re not feeling unfairly treated then they’re worrying about saying the wrong thing and being perceived as treating the other side unfairly. And yet, it’s taboo to discuss it.

Did America overlook the importance of truth-telling about the past and the power of apology and forgiveness? Why, as recently as 2009, was it a contentious issue for the U.S. Senate to apologize for slavery? As an outsider it seems abundantly clear that if these questions are not answered and the past is not fully dealt with, resentment and anger over a past that the younger generations never experienced will continue to foster racial tensions and hatred.  That invisible wall will never come down.

In the words of Ezekiel 18 verse 2(NIV), “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

15 Responses to “Race Relations and the Symptoms of a Wounded Nation”

  1. Elinor Burkett says:

    Interesting perspective Sarah, although I think you need to consider that truthtelling delayed 300 years probably isn’t very effective. And part of the problem is that the truths that need to be told aren’t just about black and white. As in any country, Americans are heirs to many injustice – the decimation of native Americans, discrimination against women and gays, the treatment of the Japanese during WWII, et al. Should we spend a lifetime going through all the injustices done during our history, falling into the trap of “I suffered more than you did,” or do we move on? I don’t think the answer is easy in an age of rampant victim mentality and a time when the true victims of so much of the discrimination are long dead.

    But I was most struck by what you wrote about southern Africa since, as a white American, I find the complexities of race and tribe to be open wounds that no one discusses except in political terms or for political gain. Not long ago, I conducted a workshop with A-level girls at a local school, and every single one of them – colored, Shona, Ndebele, Tonga, mixed tribe and white – had a legitimate complaint that they felt they were not allowed to discuss.

    I’m certainly not opposed to truthtelling and apologies. But they are not magic solutions that wipe the slate clean or heal the wounds.

    • Sarah Bosha says:

      Hi Elinor,
      I agree with you that truth-telling isnt a magic eraser to make all the bad things go away, but it is usually a good first step to reconciling a nation that seems divided in more ways than one.

      300 years is a long time ago but I ask myself does the passage of time make the bad things suddenly melt into the past? It seems to me the answer is no. The Native Americans many of whom have chosen to maintain their way of life outside of main stream America, speaks volumes of the fact that to them, the past has not been easily forgotten either. When victims hear they should get over it because its been so long already it rewounds the victim and continues to rob them of their dignity.

      I think the victim is very important and at the very least he needs to be heard and has a right to call out the bad things that happened to him. It doesnt mean that if a victim finally gets a chance to speak of how he was disadvantaged he will claim compensation or reparations. Scholars of reconciliation such Prof Daniel Philpott (Just and Unjust Peace: Ethics of Political Reconciliation, Oxford Press 2012) have found that simply getting the chance to tell what you suffered is empowering to a victim and restores their dignity. Ignoring victims will not make the divisions in America go away it has never worked in Zimbabwe and any other country of that I am pretty sure.

    • Sarah Bosha says:

      Hi Elinor,
      Thank you for your comment.

      I agree with you that truth-telling isnt a magic eraser to make all the bad things go away, but it is usually a good first step to reconciling a nation that seems divided in more ways than one.

      300 years is a long time ago but I ask myself does the passage of time make the bad things suddenly melt into the past? It seems to me the answer is no. The Native Americans many of whom have chosen to maintain their way of life outside of main stream America, speaks volumes of the fact that to them, the past has not been easily forgotten either. When victims hear they should get over it because its been so long already it rewounds the victim and continues to rob them of their dignity.

      I think the victim is very important and at the very least he needs to be heard and has a right to call out the bad things that happened to him. It doesnt mean that if a victim finally gets a chance to speak of how he was disadvantaged he will claim compensation or reparations. Scholars of reconciliation such Prof Daniel Philpott (Just and Unjust Peace: Ethics of Political Reconciliation, Oxford Press 2012) have found that simply getting the chance to tell what you suffered is empowering to a victim and restores their dignity. Ignoring victims will not make the divisions in America go away it has never worked in Zimbabwe and any other country of that I am pretty sure.

      • Elinor Burkett says:

        I agree that the passage of time doesn’t make bad things melt away. And I certainly don’t believe that victims should be told to “get over it.” But, to use my own example, as a Jew: I have never been a victim; my foreparents were, both in America and in Europe. Does that mean that I need to “call out the bad things that happened,” although they didn’t happen to me personally?

        The victims of discrimination in America have ample possibility to tell what they have suffered. They’ve done so and continue to do so. We teach about that suffering in ur schools. So I’m not sure what your point is?

        Do I, as a Jewish-American whose family suffered overt discrimination in the US – quotas at universities to keep Jews out, reduced access to employment, housing discrimination – deserve compensation? If that’s the case, every Jewish American, African American, Hispanic American, Chinese American, Vietnamese American, and every woman – the overwhelming majority of the populatoin- deserves compensation.

  2. Wiri Kapurura says:

    Great article…the subject has become more of a taboo most don’t want to discuss it…maybe out of ‘political correctness’…Just reminded me of Obama’s great speech in 2008 following the Jeremiah Wright controversies… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrp-v2tHaDo … Is the wall ‘invisible’?…I think it’s actually visible but we are ‘taught’ to be blind to it… Good job Sarah!

  3. Roger Clegg says:

    Re “Affirmative action is a policy that is meant to provide opportunities to groups that have traditionally been discriminated against. It is aimed at remedying the effects of past policies and institutions that fostered racial or gender discrimination and resulted in socio-economic differences that persist today.”

    Sorry, but that is simply false. That is NOT the justification that is before the Supreme Court today, and for good reason: The Court has already rejected it. And rightly so: There is no reason to use skin color as a proxy for social disadvantage in 2013. There are plenty of disadvantaged whites and Asians, and plenty of black and Latinos who are not disadvantaged. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of African Americans admitted into the more selective schools in the US come from non-disadvantaged backgrounds.

  4. Danielle Johnstone says:

    Thank you for a very insightful argument, Sarah. I think it is too easy to forget the tensions that exist around race in the United States, given that we are all so focussed on “colour-blindness”, which is actually just another way of protecting white privilege. I agree completely with your arguments for affirmative action, but I think memory and reconciliation are more complex. Certainly, memory is important, but i think we need to think of a new way to approach it. After all, many South Africans, regardless of race, feel that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a failure and prevented forward movement.

  5. Sarah Bosha says:

    To Elinor, I am not saying you should get compensation just a safe space to talk about your experiences so that the system understands what you went through and younger people can understand what discrimination looks like. How will young people learn how to deal with racial differences and religious differences if they dont know how you felt or others like you felt when they were discriminated?

    To Roger, thank you for your comment and taking the time to read the post. Let me clarify that the definition of affirmative action is not from the Supreme Court, its from an affirmative action group here in the US. I am not implying that any of the justices said that but trying to define what it means in the context of what i am discussing. As to why i think it works, many women have been afforded educational opportunities long reserved for men because of affirmative action and now we see female lawyers doctors, soliders you name it. For me that is evidence that affirmative action if given time can produce lasting results that change societal perceptions of a previously disadvantaged group and giving them access to sectors of society they otherwise wouldnt be able to enter into. I agree that there are many whites in low income communities as well and my argument doesnot advocate ignoring their needs.

    To Danielle, thank you for your comment. I think the best way is to create a forum for Americans by Americans and maybe learn from the mistakes of the Truth Commissions all over the world. Truth-telling is never perfect but there are measures that can be implemented to ensure there are more positives than negatives out such a process. In South Africa some people were traumatised by reliving the horrors of aparthied, others found vindication for being able to tell the whole nation the identity of the perpetrator of a wrong against them. There are pros and cons but no one size fits all on the model to use.

    To Wiri thank you for comment. Worldwide issues of race are indeed delicate subjects to broach!

    • Elinor Burkett says:

      Sarah,

      I hope you don’t feel that people are “ganging up” on you. It’s just that these sorts of issues are extremely complex in every society. I’ve lived in Zim for eight years, and the tribal issues loom extremely large to me, and I keep thinking about models from other countries that might help, none of which, I suspect, would be appropriate to this situation.

      I think that is what has provoked the reaction you received: Racial issues are extremely complicated in the US, and it is important to understand the history of the various stages of the civil rights movement, of the evolving legal landscape, and the social discomforts. You talk about the importance of “safe” space for discussion. But we’ve had and continue to have thousands of such spaces – public commissions, seminars, congressional inquiries, classrooms, community meetings, etc. And we have them for precisely the reasons you site. Alas, human beings are incredibly tribal, and despite thirty or more years of efforts, we still have plenty of racists, of all races, of people who hate Jews, Muslims, or Christians, gays or straights who seem immune to these messages. But I think the fact that we have an African-American president, that the country is moving swiftly ahead on lesbian and gay issues, and that the long offers strong protections against discrimination suggests that MOST young people have learned and absorbed the lessons we’ve been teaching them.

  6. Tawanda says:

    I think with regards to race relations their are no perfect solutions.Even in the truth and reconciliation in South Africa many from the Black community felt that it was not effective in dealing with the issues of the past and many of the whites felt that they were overly vilified.However having said that at least they activley attempted to deal with it in a honest way. So despite the fact that it was far from perfect it did at least start the healing process and the future for SA as far as race relations is brighter, not super nova blinding bright mind you, but brighter than it was before.

    In contrasts if you go the other route like America and don’t discuss it at all, you can keep the peace but it creates all kinds of problems as the ones outlined by Sarah.
    The issue of race in America is so complex and littered with so many social land mines that if its not delt with delicately and wisely could result in disastrous outcomes.My own country of Zimabawe comes to mind, Zanu Pf might have desired to deal with the geniune issue of land and race but their ineptitude and heavy handed approach resulted in ……well we all know how that story ended.

  7. Sarah Bosha says:

    To Elinor, dont worry I dont feel attacked at all! I have only been in the US for a shorttime its simply my observation from my interactions so I know I havent begun to understand the complexities of race in America. Besides blogs are about sharing your thoughts and being open to getting some responses different to your own.

    To Tawanda thank you for your comment and I agree that Zimbabwe’s approach to race and land got really messed up on so many levels. I still think we need dialogue in Zimbabwe about tribal issues, land and race, maybe in the near future?

  8. Ashok Kumar says:

    Isms and schisms, identifications, herds and flocks of collective insecurities, entitlements, does it pay? when it does milk it. Quit fooling yourself, just consider the high rates of psychosis in Jamaicans returning to Jamaica, people of color playing the ex-slavery number for commercial gain and fame, dandy black priests with more mouth than sense, any number of black comedians milking black identification, cheap racist audiences, self congratulatory narcissistic play the stereotype, it pays.” Did anyone say booty”, my people, my country, i’m really interesting let me tell you my story. Language, pronouns, skin deep egoistic patterns, robots. Wake up, Africa is perhaps the most dangerous place for people of color, ask the gays of Uganda, the expelled Indians of Uganda, the Multiple atrocities of tribal affiliations, praise God your in America and quit the endless spinning and weaving.

    • Sarah Bosha says:

      To Ashok,

      You are entitled to your opinions and I respect that, but I disagree with your comment. My post is not talking about financial reparations but about a nation any nation that has had to deal with deep racial issues to sit at a table and talk about what happened and offer forgiveness where it is due and move forward together. I understand that race is a complex issue but it has to be dealt with and ignoring it causes more harm than good.

  9. Kumbi says:

    Great article Sarah. I agree with your perspective here. The mere fact that so much time has passed and yet that elephant still lurks in the room is evidence that we must bring matters of race out in the open and find ways to deal with them and move forward. Our young people must be taught about the history of the world and how race relations have impacted so many societies so they can better understand the different societies we find ourselves in and learn from the mistakes of those that have lived before us.

    • Sarah Bosha says:

      Hey Kumbi,

      I am glad you talk to your children bluntly about race. At some point or other they will have to navigate those complex relationships and knowing its okay to talk about differences and their cultural heritage is really important.

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