As If

As If

A discussion on the continued problem of segregation in America

Sept 30 2004

Author’s Note:  I was asked to write this essay about my thoughts on how to solve this persistent problem.  My way of viewing this issue is novel and hopefully, non-offensive.  But, because this is a sensitive issue, I ask that regardless of your individual prejudices, you read this with an open and honest mind.  It is likely that my way of thinking about this issue, and my suggestions for how to deal with it will require a re-adjustment in your thinking to understand and implement.  So be patient in your reading, and honest with yourself, and please don’t jump to conclusions about my underlying assumptions.  I don’t have a hidden agenda and my only prejudice is against people who are stupid on purpose (i.e. those who had an opportunity to be educated but didn’t take advantage of it.)  Thanks for your patience, Jennifer Hancock

I am sick of living in a segregated society.  I want to live in a society where my skin color is as significant to my interaction with others, as my eye color is now.   No one would dare judge my ideas and capabilities or make assumptions about my beliefs and morality based on my eye color.  And neither should they with my skin color.  And yet, we do it every day.  America has a history of racial bigotry and its ugly cousin racism.  And, we are not alone. Societies across the globe are stuck in old-fashioned ways about thinking about themselves and others.

If we are to achieve a society in which everyone is free, and everyone is entitled to full human rights, we need to think about ourselves in new ways.  We need to think about the other people we share this planet with in new ways.  We need to stop thinking about ourselves as belonging to a specific tribe, and start thinking about ourselves as Humans.  But because of America’s history of inequality, and because of our continued problem with institutionalized segregation, this will not be easy.  We need to first define the nature of the problem, discuss the progress that has been made so far on our road to total equality, and then discuss what still needs to be done.

America was founded on wonderful ideals of human equality and freedom, but unfortunately, because of slavery, racism, and other oppressive views, our ideals were not extended to everyone in our human family.  Just rich land owners, who in America, also happened to be white.    The system of government they set up was institutionally segregated by race, skin color, and gender.  And, despite the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th Amendments, it still is. (These amendments specifically exclude American Indians, an omission that has not yet been rectified.)  Because of institutionalized segregation, Americans are forced to see themselves not as humans, but as a racial class separate from others.  And this distorted view infects everyone in our society of every ethnic and racial background.  If we are white, we are aware of it.  If we are in a minority group, we are aware of it.  If we are discriminated against, we are aware of it.  How can we not be?

In order to change our society, we must change the way we view ourselves.  Our current view is a reflection of how society is now, not how it should be.   This is a matter of personal ethics.  If we want to live in a fair and just society, we need to act in a fair and just way.  We are each personally responsibly for doing our part to create the society we want to live in.  And, if we want to live in a society in which our skin color or gender doesn’t matter, we each need to act as if it doesn’t.

Acting As If

“Acting As If” may seem like a very simplistic and unrealistic method for dealing with a very real and very large societal problem.  After all, it doesn’t matter if we act as if our skin color doesn’t matter, because in the real world it does.  People really do get pulled over by the cops for driving while black.  People really don’t get served at restaurants because of their skin color, people really do get beat up for interracial dating, and people really are denied access to health care because of their ethnic background.    But, it may surprise you to know that “Acting As If” has a long and exalted history of creating remarkable societal change.  I first heard about it in relationship to the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.  Artists started this revolution.  They realized that even though their government outlawed freedom of expression, their government was actually incapable of enforcing this rule.  The rule was enforced through fear.  So, they decided to act as if they had freedom of expression.  “Acting As If” they had freedom of expression could get them thrown in jail, and many were.  But they held fast to their beliefs.  They wanted to live in a society that had freedom of expression, so they acted as if they did, and because enough of them acted as if they had the right to speak their mind, they were able to overthrow their oppressive government in a velvet revolution.  Governments can only rule through the consent of the governed. And when the governed refuse to obey, societal change follows.

For those of you who are familiar with the history of the civil rights movement in America, you will notice similarities to the philosophy and tactics that our own movement used to overturn many of the institutionalized segregated policies in America.  The acknowledged philosophic founders of the modern American Civil Rights movement were A Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.  Both men were Humanists and saw themselves, not as black men, but as humans, and believed that they had the same rights to equality, freedom and justice as all other humans on the planet.  The tactics and strategies they used, were underpinned, by “Acting As If.”  If you believe you have the right to sit anywhere on a public bus you want, you need to act as if you do, and literally sit where you want despite the consequences.  A similar philosophy informed the lunch counter sit-ins, and many other efforts in the civil rights movement.  Despite its simplicity, “Acting As If” is a very powerful method of societal change.

Randolph and Rustin, as Humanists, were aware that the struggle for black equality, wasn’t just about blacks, it was about all dispossessed people, including, Mexican Americans, Indians, Puerto Ricans, and poor Whites alike, and they were further aware that their struggle was not limited to the United States, but that it was global.  They saw themselves as humans, not as black men, and this view of themselves was central to their ability to get to the root of the problems they were facing.  This view insulated Randolph and Rustin from the attempts of elite power brokers to focus their frustration on “others” instead of on the elites who were causing the suffering.  Because they were Humanists, they didn’t think of their problems in an Us v. Them scenario.  They were able to recognize that those “others” were humans just like them and were suffering too and they worked hard to make them their allies in their struggle.  Finally, because they viewed themselves as human, they were able to frame their struggle as an effort to manifest the shared ideals of humanity.  Their struggle was not a struggle for black rights; it was the struggle for Human Rights. 

Personal Responsibility

The problems we face today are different then those faced by Randolph and Rustin.  Fortunately, most of the hard work to transform our society has already been done.  Most, but not all, of the institutionalized policies of segregation have been eliminated from our law books.  And, most Americans no longer hold the extremely bigoted and/or racist views of our predecessors.  The foundation for a society of equality and justice has already been laid. However, we still have a lot of work to do.  The stalling point in our progress appears to be related to individual responsibility rather then the institutional problems of the past.  There are several hurdles we need to address if we are to succeed in our struggle to create a society with true equality.  They are all interrelated but will be dealt with individually.  One is fear, the second is changing our worldview, and the third involves personal responsibility.  Education is also addressed as being key to overcoming the first three issues.

One of the biggest hurdles to solving our segregation problem is fear.  Fear is the biggest stumbling block for all of human progress.  It is fear that keeps people from fighting oppression.  It is fear that makes people stay silent when they see an injustice.  And it is fear that is keeping our society segregated.  Most of the legal barriers to equality have been eliminated.  And yet, we still keep to ourselves.  My black friends tell me that they are afraid that white people will dislike them and try to hurt them, and so, it is best to stay insulated inside the black community.  My white friends express the fear that if they try to interact with a black person, they will make a social faux pas and be branded a racist, and so, they keep to themselves.  And while most of these fears are unfounded, there is still a good reason for this fear.  Bigotry remains alive and well in America.  And, it infects all segments of our society.  Black society has their bigots, just as white society has theirs.  And both white and black bigots are united in their bigotry against Asians, Mexicans, and Arabs.  If we are to overcome this hurdle, we must acknowledge that we have a problem that can only be solved by education.  And part of that education requires us to use language more precisely.  First, not everyone is racially bigoted.  In fact, very few people in America are.  Being a bigot means you are intolerant of people that are different from you.  Prejudice is much more common, and it is quite possible to be prejudiced and not be a bigot, because being prejudiced only means having an unfavorable opinion.   It is quite possible to not like something but still tolerate it.  And, because of our shared values of freedom and equality, most Americans will defend the right of individuals, even individuals they don’t like, to have the same rights and opportunities as they do.  Americans are amazingly intolerant of intolerance.  Finally, racism is about believing that one race is superior to the others, and advocating policies based on that belief.  It is entirely possible to be prejudiced without being a racist.  It is also possible to be a bigot without being a racist. So, we need to stop throwing around the word “racist” when what we are dealing with is most likely prejudice.  If someone truly is racist, then we need to call him or her on that, but we diminish the meaning of the word when we apply it to people who aren’t. 

Most American’s are prejudiced.  Some are bigots and a few are outright racists.  In order to successfully change our society, we need to focus on the majority. And the problem of the majority is prejudice.  Prejudice is a direct result of what I referred to at the beginning of this essay as a distorted sense of self that is a result of how our society is and not how it should be.  And, this sense of self, and the fear that comes with it, has led to our current situation of self-segregation.    Racial prejudice is most often a result of stereotyping, and inaccurate information.  We simply don’t know what people in the “other” group are really like.  Or, what happens more often, we have one bad experience and generalized the behavior of an individual to the entire group.  None of us want to be judged by the worst that members of our skin color tribe are capable of. We want to be judged as the responsible, compassionate and ethical individuals that we really are.  For those of us who are not prejudiced, we need to help others overcome their prejudices based on race.  To do this, we need to overcome our fears of being harmed or attacked, and reach out to each other.  We need to understand that at this point, there are more potential friends on the other side of this divide then enemies.  And trust that if we reach out, our friends in the “other” group will support us.

Here is where personal responsibility comes in.  The revolution that must occur if we are to transcend our current segregated society must be done on an individual basis.  In order to “Act As If” our skin color doesn’t matter, we need to believe that it doesn’t matter.  This requires us to change the way we think about ourselves.  The only way we can transcend not only the tribalism that is race, but also gender, ethnicity, religion, etc, is to see ourselves as primarily Human, just as Randolph and Rustin did.  Whether you accept it or not, you are a member of the Human Family, and you share in common your desires, dreams, and destiny with all the other members of your human family on the planet.  This is the only affiliation that really matters anymore. All other views are outdated and counter-productive. To accept this reality as your primary view of yourself, is to free yourself from old-fashioned ineffective ways of viewing your place in the world, views that are preventing you from the full exercise of your human rights.   Becoming a Humanist is a liberating experience.  The price you pay for this freedom is your personal commitment to conduct yourself in accordance with your highest ideals and the responsibility to others that comes with those ideals. 

Regardless of your skin color, ethnicity, gender, etc, you cannot blame others for your segregation, and you can’t blame your lack of achievement on a discriminatory system. (Unless you are an American Indian or female, as both groups are still legally discriminated against per our Constitution.)  Each of us is responsible for our own behavior.  If we want to live in a society as equals, we must act as if we are and treat each other as equals.  Likewise, we are each responsible for how we respond to the bigots and racists that still infect our society.   If we want to live in a society where our skin color doesn’t matter, then we must not allow the worst elements of our society to dictate our behavior.  We must “Act As If” their opinions don’t matter, because they don’t.  Their only tool is fear, and we have no reason to be afraid anymore.  We are the majority, and we have the ability to transform our society, but only if we each take on the responsibility to do out part.

The key to our emancipation is education.  And, despite the built in inequities of our educational system, there is no reason why Americans, regardless of race, gender, or financial ability aren’t educated.  We have universal primary education and public libraries in every community. Everyone in this country has the opportunity to become literate, if they want to.  That is their personal responsibility.  Why is this so important?    While racial discrimination still occurs in hiring, driving, shopping, etc, it is less common then it use to be, and much of the discrimination we see today is actually discrimination based on education and its perceived corollary, economic status.  To put it bluntly, educated people are seen to be more ethical, responsible and compassionate then their uneducated counter parts, and for good reason.  The purpose of education is, as Confucius said, to become a “virtuous” person.  This focus on real quality of character is a vast improvement over our old system that judged people by arbitrary accidents of birth.  And, because the main discrimination we will see going forward is and will of necessity be between educated and uneducated individuals, it is essential that every child have equal access to a quality education.  This is why the International Convention on the Rights of the Child lists Universal Primary Education as a responsibility of every government. This is why Bill Cosby ranted against individuals who haven’t taken advantage of the educational opportunities our predecessors fought so hard to guarantee. And this is why American’s must fight any effort to de-fund our public education system.   Education helps us live a better life in the present and aspire to higher ideals for the future.  Education encourages us to become personally responsible for creating positive social change. Education does this by providing us with positive role models of humans that came before us, dealt with oppression, challenged discrimination and overcame adversity to make the world a better place for all of us to live. 

As for the lingering institutional segregation against women and American Indians, the solution for those problems is the same as for everything else.  Women in America are already “Acting As If” they have equal rights, and this tactic has been so successful, that, most American’s aren’t even aware that our Constitution, technically, still allows for discrimination based on gender.  American Indians have a longer row to hoe. They need to take the responsibility to “Act As If” they are equal and insist that they be treated as such.  And through their actions, they will change society.  Because it is only through active non-violent challenge to the status quo that change is possible.  America is the land of the free and we take that role seriously.  We don’t like discrimination in any form and are committed, as a society, to creating a peaceful, just world where Human Rights are enjoyed by all.  But if we are to get there, we must “Act As If” we already are.