True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us. —Socrates
What we understand about any given topic is generally a lot less than what we like to think. Even after thirty-plus years, you won’t catch me claiming to know everything about photography. Knowing the limits of what we understand on any topic is important. Being open to different perspectives and various sources of information helps us to learn and grow.
What we understand, or don’t understand, about race, though, is critical. What we think we know shapes our attitudes and perceptions not only about the topic of race, but about the people whose appearance is different than our own. The tone of our voice, the vocabulary we use, even our physical mannerisms change based on what we think we understand about people of different ethnicities and backgrounds.
There are gaps of perception between people of any two races, but the strongest and perhaps widest gap, particularly on the topic of race and equality, may lie between the two most broadly identified groups: blacks and whites. A new survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center highlights just how incredibly wide that gap is. For all the advancements we like to think we’ve made, what we understand about each other isn’t much at all.
Starting With An Open Mind
I feel, to some degree, that I’m coming into this conversation with a perspective that may leave me disadvantaged. I don’t identify as either white or black. Both Cherokee and Choctaw ancestry exists in our family makeup, along with a hodgepodge of European strains. I choose to identify with native peoples because I feel that ethnicity more closely relates to who I am. Interestingly enough, when my hair is long people tend to respond to me in the context of a person of native heritage. When my hair is short, though, as it is now, I am treated more like an old white guy.
I also have the ability to observe how Kat’s children are treated. While their biological paternity is black, they are both relatively light skinned. Little Man even has light blue eyes. Tipster is the darker of the two, but rarely has anyone, including teachers, identified them as being of mixed race. Their exposure to black people and black culture is limited to classmates and neighbors.
What we understand, the nature of our experience, is changed by how we racially identify. Our perceptions are based upon what we perceive in comparison to our own experience. Therefore, we must come into any conversation about race with our minds open to the fact that what we actually understand is very limited.
Understand We Have A Problem
Racial inequality in the United States is a problem. Denying the severity of that problem makes it worse. We see inequality in the justice system. We see inequality in the policing of black and white communities. We see inequality in education. We see inequality in legislative representation. If we genuinely want to understand each other more and improve the situation, we must first acknowledge that the problem is real. Unfortunately, not everyone seems able to do that.
While whites generally recognize that blacks are treated less fairly in legal matters, especially those involving police, their perception of inequality in more normal, everyday activities, such as applying for a loan or mortgage, at work, or when shopping or dining out
is skewed. Blacks understand the inequality of those situations because they experience the inequality of those situations. Whites, on the other hand, are blissfully unaware of the struggle blacks face simply trying to do the same things everyone else does.
Perception does not necessarily equate with reality, but the sizable gaps in those perceptions illustrate the severity of the problem. White people, as a group, don’t understand just how much inequality black people experience. Perhaps, as that awareness increases, the perspective can change. Helping people become aware of the problem is the first step toward solving it.
Politics Blur Our Vision
One major factor in how whites perceive racial inequality is political party affiliation. Generally speaking, Republicans understand far less the reality of racism and are often quite annoyed when the topic is even raised. They mistakenly think they have a good understanding when the reality is they don’t have a clue.
For example, on the question of how much attention is paid to race, 41% of whites say that too much attention is paid to the topic. By contrast, 58% of blacks say we discuss race too little. Break that down by political party, though, and the picture gets more interesting. Among White Republicans, 59% say too much attention is given to matters of race, among Independents, 42% agree, but only 21% of Democrats hold that belief. 49% of white democrats believe that too little attention is paid to racial inequality.
Some numbers we see played out in real life. 78% of white Democrats say the country needs to continue making changes addressing racial inequalities. By contrast, only 36% of Republicans agree and 54% of Republicans believe things are just fine the way they are. If you were wondering how a racist, bigoted xenophobe could become the presidential candidate of the Republican party, you now have your answer.
Understand We Must Move Forward
One place where both blacks and whites agree is that individual discrimination is a greater issue than institutional discrimination. How we treat each other, one person at a time, makes a tremendous difference. Improving our personal relationships with each other inevitably trickles up into how corporations and institutions treat people. We each make a conscious decision when we meet someone how we are going to treat them and that has to improve.
Legislative representation at every level of lawmaking has to improve as well. This is challenging so long as political gerrymandering of voting districts is legal. Especially in the South, there are too many districts whose lines are so impossible distorted that it is impossible for black people to elect a black representative. At the federal level, there are only 43 black members of the House of Representatives and, quite shamefully, only one in the Senate. Being woefully under-represented is criminal. We need more black representatives in Congress.
Finally, we need to accept that white people don’t understand the challenges of the black community nearly as much as they think. Whites must take a new look at the tremendous advantage their race affords them. The playing field is nowhere close to level and white people, in overwhelming numbers must commit to changing that situation.
Sure, you have a black friend or two, and maybe you even work with black people, but if you think you really understand the challenge of being black in America, you’re wrong. Open your eyes. Open your mind. Let’s change this country.