A very disturbing thing happened during the Republican National Convention this week: two attendees threw nuts at a black CNN camerawoman and said "this is how we feed the animals." The attendees were promptly removed and the RNC seemed genuinely appalled by what happened, but the incident exposes the seamy underbelly of this election cycle and maybe our society as well. The fault line between whites and people of color has not appeared this wide in a long time, and it is not a good sign of things to come.
The rhetoric in the 2012 election has been astonishingly divisive and loaded with innuendo, making this not a contest between two candidates or parties but between two "Americas," between the capitalists and the communists, between the religiously devout and the faithless, between hardworking people and welfare recipients, between honest citizens and illegal immigrants, between those with family values and those without.
While a lot of these things may have nothing to do with race, the stereotypes that are associated with these labels are usually viewed through the prism of race. For example, who do you picture when you imagine a successful banker -- a white man or a black woman? Who do you picture when you imagine a welfare recipient -- a black man or someone else? I'm not saying that it is right, I'm saying that we are all guilty sometimes of cultural myopia, and our politicians exploit that.
But why is this happening at all, especially half a century after the civil rights movement and during a time of unparalleled equality? Why are our politicians able to divide us and incite prejudice so easily?
There are likely three reasons for this:
Lack of Empathy Amongst the Races
To put it simply, everyone thinks that the other guy has it better and is the lucky recipient of some unfair advantage, whether it be inherited wealth, better education, higher pay, Affirmative Action, or government help. It really doesn't matter what people are angry about; the important thing is that they blame someone else for it; and in the process forget that regardless of the color of our skin, we all have the same national DNA -- we all aspire to the same ideals of freedom and equality even if we enjoy different benefits and face different challenges.
Economic Pain and Uncertainty
Another big factor is the recession and the prolonged agony that Americans have suffered since the financial crisis of 2008. Not that bigotry is justifiable under any circumstance, but with unemployment above 8%, wages declining, and our economic future uncertain, people are scared and frustrated, which then leads to irrational anger and insularity. Just as crime rates in major cities inevitably go up during excessive heat waves, the brutal economic climate in the country has loosened the leash on the darker side of our human nature. Add to this a partisan political landscape where fanning the flames of anger snags lots of votes (as was clearly demonstrated during the midterm elections), and you have a recipe for disaster.
As the number of people of color has gone up over the decades and as the proportion of whites has declined rapidly, so has the power structure that drives our economy, our government, and our culture. The effects of such a shift are profound and difficult for either side to absorb or rationalize in a hurry. Not to mention that even as we adapt to a new reality, that reality seems to evolve again within a span of a few years -- courtesy of living in a dynamic society and in a high-tech age. The result is a constantly changing nation that cannot quite find its legs.
Convention demands that I end this piece on a nice, sugary note that makes everyone feel good about themselves and America, but that would be no different than pretending that we don't see racial divides at all. After the election the noise might die down but the sullen resentment that will replace it is just as deadly. A better, and healthier, approach, is to admit frankly that there is a lack of understanding between the races, and that it is time to launch a real national debate about the subject.
President Obama's election was a unifying moment for the country but what has transpired since then, in no small part due to the factors mentioned above, has broken down that unity and shown us that we may have diversity but not necessarily harmony. But harmony is essential to our success and our happiness. Whether you are white or a person of color, living at odds with your neighbors will only hold you back from achieving the great heights to which Americans are capable, and destroy the American dream.
I am sure that some readers will attempt to read behind my words and find a hidden accusation directed at some particular group, but they would be dead wrong. The fact is that we are all to blame for this problem, and we all need to come together to find the solution. Otherwise we will remain divided, and the politicians will win.
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