In the U.S., race remains the elephant in the room

Peter Makori

The racial question is one of the most sensitive subjects that I have discovered among most Americans, even in a classroom setting.

When I took an American History class in a community college a few years ago, my instructor avoided discussing the details of Jim Crow laws. As a foreigner, I did not understand why until I raised the question about what the laws meant.

The instructor, an African American, explain that Jim Crow was an official racial segregation policy, which was especially rampant in the South.

This topic elicited controversial arguments and I noticed both blacks and whites in the classroom were very uncomfortable dealing with it. I was a little baffled.

Last fall, an African American colleague in one of my journalism classes at UMKC commented that there exists what he termed “black phobia” in America. He explained that there were some instances where fear engulfed whites whenever a black person was seen walking through a predominantly white neighborhood.

His pronouncement came at a time tension was high in Florida following the shooting of Trayvon Martin by a white Hispanic in circumstances many interpreted were racially motivated.

As the instructor urged him to reveal more, the student explained that there is a subliminal concept among whites that blacks are aggressive and more inclined to violent behavior.

The problem, the student explained lay with the media which profiles blacks as a community of criminals.

The question of racial suspicion in America is a complex one. I am not an expert to address it, but I feel that a learning institution like UMKC should develop a curriculum where this question can be explored as a subject to benefit both the “victim” and perceived “perpetrator.” This could provide healing of the historical mistrust that exists among blacks and whites in America.

Racial suspicion in America is akin to tribalism, which characterizes the daily lives of the different ethnic communities in Africa.

In my country, Kenya, we have had very serious tribal conflicts, which are partly to blame for the emerging trend of presidential election rigging.

One tribe that erroneously assumes entitlement to the presidency at the expense of the other 42 tribes has continued to dominate all the key government positions since independence, and feels insecure if the instruments of political power shifts to any other tribe.

A section of forward-looking citizens has joined hands to fight this tribalism.

The American people can do the same so that each group will have the opportunity to express itself freely as part of a healing process. Hypocrisy and wishing away this important question will not heal the centuries-old injustices.

In the American history class, some students became upset when the details of racial segregation were being discussed.

A typical reaction came from one student who exclaimed, “My parents came to this country long after slavery had ended. I don’t want to be dragged into this issue and my parents did not enslave anybody.”

Of course, I did not understand why this issue should elicit emotions of that magnitude. I observed that African Americans felt that despite the indignity and deprivation they suffered, nothing has ever been done to acknowledge the injustices.

Early last week, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia attracted outrage from the black community when he declared that a key piece of the Voting Rights Act “perpetuated racial entitlement.”

There is nothing wrong with a people who endured endless deprivation of their human rights and dignity to demand entitlement, if that’s what it’ll take to accelerate their efforts to catch up with the rest.

Freeing of slaves without formulating realistic affirmative action to address the fundamental social-political and economic needs of the afflicted is not enough.

Speaking about these problems will create a forum where those who feel victimized can express their feelings to the other side. Those perceived to be descendants of slave ownership would also have the opportunity to address the misperceptions that make them look guilty by association.

There is no cure for racial and tribal suspicions other than openly speaking about them.

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