Whether White or Black a Man

Whether White or Black a Man

By: Jermel W. Shim, August 25, 2013

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In 1898, Edith Smith Davis wrote in the Preface of her book, Whether White or Black a Man, “The world has greatly changed in these last forty years, and yet, in a large measure, the words of Mrs. Stowe would be true today; for any book dealing with the life of the colored people must speak of a race still largely “ignored by the associations of polite and refined society.” Edith Davis Smith was referring to the comments in the Preface of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin where she said, “The scenes of this story lie among a race hitherto ignored by the association of polite and refined society.”

When Edith Smith Davis commented on the changes in the world from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s time to her time, it was only a difference of nearly fifty years. The changes she was referring to related to slavery, which was still active in 1858. Slavery would be abolished in 1865 so she would have witnessed a totally different society in 1898 when she wrote her book. Fast forward to 2013, some 115 years after she published her book and the words quoted from the Prefaces of both Harriet Beecher Stowe and Edith Smith Davis are still applicable in the context of race-relations.

Without doubt, everything associated with human life has greatly changed from the time slavery was abolished to the present time. The technological and social changes that have occurred during the past century bears testimony to that. Despite these changes, human behavior and attitudes sometimes seem resistant to change. Entire cultures and races of people are still conflicted with racial, religious, and political issues that have resulted in genocide, human rights abuse, racism, racial discrimination, and violence. The fact that humans have the ability to produce great technological innovations but cannot resolve the social conflict that divides them tells us that the technological mind and the social minds (that governs beliefs and attitudes) are independent of each other. The scientist can develop technology and at the same time hate others.

When Edith Smith Davis wrote, Whether White or Black a Man, she probably never envisioned that one day a black man would become president of the United States. Considering that the main character in her book was, a young black [crippled] boy, Major Brown who aspired to become a congressman was prevented from achieving his dream because of his race.

A child prodigy, Major Brown received a scholarship to study in Germany where he obtained his PhD. After returning to his home in Georgia, he began his quest to be elected to congress. However, he would face strong opposition that eventually led to him being brutally murdered by a group of white men who did not want to see him represent them in politics.

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Today we have a black man who unlike Major Brown has achieved his political dream to become the first black president. Both President Obama and Major Brown have one thing in common – their race – which in Major Brown’s case got him killed and in President Obama’s case has exposed him to unwanted challenges and hatred. While President Obama has not been physically harmed (thank God) he has been opposed every step of the way and disrespected in a manner that is unprecedented for a president of the United States. In his second term as president, there are those who still believe he is not a legitimate president because they claim he was born in Kenya.

The effort to delegitimize and disrespect President Obama is the manifestation of a history of negative racial beliefs and attitudes that have persisted since slavery times. This belief and attitude originates from the ideology of racism with its tenet that the black man is inferior to the white man. As long as people subscribe consciously or unconsciously to the ideology of racism, we will continue to have racial conflict and division in American society.

No one can deny that the racial problems that exist in America today are not as blatant as they were during the Jim Crow era. Thanks to the civil rights laws enacted in 1964 and hate crime laws, racism and racial violence have significantly subsided. This observation plus the significant progress that African Americans have achieved have created the illusion that racism is not a problem today. This illusion to some degree seems to emanate from the difficulty of determining whether a particular incident was racially motivated. If something is hard to prove then it is easy to deny its existence.

Fifty years ago, the march on Washington led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., helped exposed social injustice and racism. Subsequent to that historic event, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While the civil rights struggle created opportunities that ushered in major social changes, the landscape of America can be likened to a battleground where the war is essentially over but the mines have never been defused or removed. In this analogy, nonwhite people have to be careful how they navigate this treacherous landscape. One misstep can trigger these “racial mines” resulting in them being killed or maimed (physically and psychologically).

Despite the landscape being rigged with racial mines from the past, there are those who would like us to believe that racism is not a problem in America today. How could racism exist in a society that now has a black president, black men and women in high private and public positions, and several black millionaires? The answer is that racism does not make a distinction between black based on economic status or whether they hold the highest office in the nation. With racism, a wealthy black man or a black president is still a black man.

The difficulty in determining if an incident was racially motivated or not comes from a white perspective that tends to deny any alleged racial incidents as racism or having a racial connection. We see this denial more from the right wing media pundits who are quick to proclaim that any alleged racial incident or individual who engaged in an alleged racist behavior is not racially motivated. For example the TV coverage of high profile incidents like Henry Gates, Imus, and the Trayvon Martin murder case are just a few that have been played out on the national stage and dismissed as being nonracial. With these incidents, the defenders against the charges of racism complicate and make the problem more controversial – probably good for TV rating but bad for resolving racial problems.

If there are good reasons why racism persists then those reasons must include the failure to reconcile it. If you have a problem and never acknowledge it then it is impossible to solve it. That is the situation with racism today. Whites do not acknowledge that it is a problem and instead are more inclined to deny it. Like the alcoholic who denies his or her alcoholism, he or she cannot be cured of this problem until they acknowledge the problem and agree to get treatment. Reconciling racism is a difficult challenge for whites and is perhaps only possible through coercion. On an individual level, it is probably easier to reconcile this problem.

Another reason why racism has not been reconciled is that the people who can influence this reconciliation or change in people’s attitude and belief seem to lack the courage or interest to do so. These people include leaders from all areas of society – political leaders, religious leaders, academic leaders, and civic leaders. These leaders have for the most part remained silent on racial matters. Politicians especially avoid it like the plague and only venture into that arena to stir up problem to rally their base – pushing anti-black agenda for example.

The only voice then that is willing to talk about racial matters is the right wing media pundits. They, however, do not engage in a responsible and effective dialogue that can bring about meaningful change. Instead, they create more controversy, confusion, misunderstanding, and divisiveness. With their already racially biased mind, these right wing media pundits are not in a position to make the call on whether an incident or individual is racist. And pointing the finger at black people like Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and say that they are racist too does not help in solving the problem of racism that still exist.

Those who subscribe to the ideology of racism or allow it to influence their belief and attitude need to have a honest, mature, and spiritual evaluation of themselves. Doing this will help them to understand that no race or person is perfect or superior to another. We must strive to become more spiritually enlightened so that hatred is replaced with love and we live our lives in accordance with the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”