President Obama’s memoir is out and reading a couple of excerpts refreshed many memories and thoughts of my own, not necessarily all related directly to my life. From my observation of the external view of racism, I have seen it moving from obvious to subtle to back to open racism levels in the last 40 years, I have lived in different parts of the USA, from Florida, and Pennsylvania to Maryland.
When I migrated to the US in 1978, I was naive, and ignorant, when it came to the issue of racism. I also carried preconceived thoughts about blacks in this country as they were fed into me, based on a little to no direct knowledge of black lives in the US. Racism was not something that had ever crossed my twenty-something young mind until I landed here. To me racism was not a thing, it was a black people’s problem. For a long time, I hardly had any black friends or even acquaintances. I got to know a few black friends after I got a professional job. Living in Miami and going to college there, working in odd jobs, exposure to blacks was extremely limited, because recently immigrated Cubans had taken over most jobs that were dominant among blacks. The infamous Liberty City was a place for blacks and most problems happened only in that area. Liberty City in Miami in the 70s and early 80s was like Southeast Washington DC in the early 1990s,
I got along fairly well with people of all races and colors in general. I was fortunate to have grown up in a family where we never heard of treating people differently based on their race, color, caste, nationality, or religion. Everyone in our household was treated with respect, be it a maid, a janitor, a street vendor or a clergyman. When I go back home, our household maid for over 40 years still gives me a tight hug, without any consideration of artificial classes created by the society.
In the US, the blacks in the 70s and 80s knew they were living with silent discrimination everywhere, in jobs, social events, and schools, and it was accepted as part of their life. Just like Indians, Chinese and Latinos, Black people also socialized mostly among blacks. Diversity and the awareness against racism were not openly promoted until the 1990s when more Black Americans joined the professional workforce in large corporations, as a result of the Civil Rights movement, affirmative action programs and Title IX implementation. Newly graduated, more confident young Black Americans started to integrate more with whites and the people of other races. I remember my first good African American friend was during the early eighties in my first IT job in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. That was my first true exposure to black culture. But because he was probably the first person from his family in a professional position, he also tried to fit in hard among 98% whites around him. He and I were the only minority people I could remember in the entire building or at least in our business unit that must have over 100 people. Nonetheless, both of us were not intimidated. We never acted like we were minorities or only 2 people of different color and race. I can’t remember ever being mistreated or looked down upon by anyone of any race or color. I knew there was discrimination, and racism in that part of the country but it was limited mostly to lower-level jobs or Executive-level jobs. Racism skipped mid-level professional jobs.
First time I experienced open discrimination was entirely based on the skin of my color when I moved to Maryland. My immediate supervisor, a woman married to a black gentleman, promoted a new white guy, who had no real skills or knowledge of the job. I was the one who literally trained him, and before he was fully trained, suddenly he became my supervisor. He was a good friend of mine, even he knew it was open discrimination but neither of us could do anything about it. Needless to say, I quit within a month later without showing any resentment towards the guy. It was the white woman manager who showed a clear racist self.
But the first incident that gave voice to people against racism, especially against systemic discrimination by the police force, was triggered by Rodney King’s beating in LA which was captured on camera in 1991. In 1992 – “Fury over the acquittal — stoked by years of racial and economic inequality in the city — spilled over into the streets, resulting in five days of rioting in Los Angeles. It ignited a national conversation about racial and economic disparity and police use of force that continues today.” (npr.org). Until that time, racism was discussed in random conversations but not as a national level social issue. Presidential political debates didn’t have time dedicated to racism as a major topic of contention.
Even until 2008, racism was not as much out in the open and would have stayed that way, if John McCain had not picked Sarah Palin for the Vice Presidential ticket. Because the integration between white and black americans became a common practice by the early 2000s and one could start to see the progress because of Gen X and Y’s progressive view of equality especially among races and sexual orientation; the sensitivity towards blacks and racism improved manifolds, the “N” word officially became a taboo, blacks had a leader in the name of Barack Obama. But in his attempt to counter a black presidential candidate with a conservative woman vice president seemed the best choice to McCain, at that time. That was the event that gave voice to otherwise a quietly simmering class of racists, who felt threatened by a black president. These white, fearful, and hate-mongers couldn’t accept the fact that a black man will rule a largely white populace. They started to look for a leader who could speak loudly on their behalf. The majority white population felt slighted by the democratic party and to them it appeared Democrats care more about the minority population than the majority and they are selling the country to immigrants and people of other races.
With Sarah Palin as an opening act, Trump gave these hidden uneducated, low-skilled rural, neo-nazi racists, anti-immigrant, gun-toting people a huge loudspeaker with the birther movement against Barack Obama. The opportunist politicians, mostly from the poor midwest states also joined the band-wagon when they noticed Trump’s increasing loud voice sticking with a class of people. Those politicians who otherwise would have detached themselves and would have openly spoken against racism stopped criticizing Trump and his agenda. These politicians started giggling with joy and eventually joined the fray in the 2016, 2018, and 2020 elections without any shame or remorse.
The Republican leadership is responsible for converting very subtle and low-level racism into an open fight for racism. The shameless leadership became the puppet of Trump and his racist followers so that they could keep their seats and power at any cost. The respectable people who spoke against Trump left their political career instead of fighting against a bully. They could not muster enough resources and public support against Trump to fight him and bring him down. Trump became too big for individual voices. Democrats and Republicans who were against racism couldn’t be united and strong enough to break the republican subservience.
So where does it go from here? Is racism here to stay? How much longer will it stay? Why has racism become such a huge social issue in the US while it hardly existed in any other country at this level prior to Trump coming into the political scene? Is it made big by the media to oppose Trump? Is it being played by both parties to their political advantage like the Hind-Muslim issue in India?
I don’t know the answer to all those questions. All I know is that people have to grow out of these trivial issues like people’s skin color, nationality, language, culture, clothing, and sexual orientation. They trivialize our existence as the most evolved species on this planet. The one half of the population will have to take the responsibility for the other irresponsible people for whom the national and racial boundaries are their safe-havens. As humans, we can only grow and prosper, by using our united brainpower, productively. The responsible people cannot sit quiet and hope for those irresponsibles to grow up. We, the responsible humans, have to raise our voices, work towards the betterment of all humans, this planet, and beyond. We have a long way to go and there is no time to waste on people’s skin color. We can no longer afford to be quiet while witnessing injustice and inequality. So speak up any time you see inequality, unfairness or oppression of people because of any reason at all. And that’s my Take and a mission moving forward.
(P.S. – watch our series on BLM, discussions among southeast asians, first and second generation Indians and Pakistani participants.)