Thursday, February 14, 2013

Paper Bag Test

CNN recently aired a series called “Who is black in America?” Soledad O’Brien interviewed a number of African Americans and asked them how they defined themselves. O’Brien noted that in a previous era, if someone was darker than a paper bag they weren’t admitted in certain places. I ran to the kitchen to take the test: I failed. One cousin insists we have African American blood, but I suspect it is a combination of Eastern European and Mediterranean heritage. The CNN show and the paper bag test got me thinking about ethnicity and race.

My abolitionist ancestors would be pleased with the re-election of an African American president. Still, it doesn’t indicate that the country has achieved equality. This president and his family have received more death threats than any other president in history.

While the demographics of the country are changing, economic and social parity seem farther away. The AP noted that the income of a middle-class black family went down compared to white families in the years between 1974 and 2004. In 1974, blacks earned 63% of whites; in 2004 it was just 58%. The Great Recession further eroded the tenuous economic position of black and brown families: according to CNN Money, white Americans have 22 times more wealth than blacks. This gap doubled in recent years.

In southern California, the raw emotion of the Chris Dorner episode reveals how close to the surface racial issues are. Chris Dorner no doubt experienced racism at the LAPD and may have been a victim of negative attitudes in the military. Listening to local radio, the community seems as divided as during the OJ trial and Rodney King.

What can ordinary people of good will do about our highly charged ethnic fault lines? Here are a few ideas.
First, cross the color line. Go to parts of town you don’t normally visit. Here in southern California, neighborhood divisions are sharp because of a nasty history of covenants. Driving a few miles can take you to another world.

Use your wallet wisely. In this era of austerity, with its sharp cuts to social services, consider shopping mindfully. John and Maggie Anderson advocate patronizing minority-owned businesses. These enterprises hire within their communities and tend to help their own.

Urge your local and national politician to end the War on Drugs. Whatever the original purpose of the legislation was, men of color are disproportionately imprisoned for non-violent drug offenses. Michelle Alexander calls the War on Drugs the “New Jim Crow.” Whether or not you believe the policy was instigated to punish young black men, that has been the outcome. It’s ruined many lives and made no one safer.

Socialize with people of a different ethnic background. At a recent event, I was disheartened to see a sea of old white faces. I need to broaden my horizons.

Finally, volunteer. Mentor someone, help someone learn how to read. Volunteering is the most selfish thing you can do: it feels so good.

The country and the world are changing, and we are challenged to change as well. By intentionally acting and choosing to conduct our lives in a broader way, the revolution begins. We must change ourselves before the world can change.

Postscript: If you’re in the area, please come to Dr. Saylor’s lecture, “Abolitionism on the Western Reserve” for the San Diego Civil War Roundtable, Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m. To be held at Palisades Presbyterian Church, 6301 Birchwood St.