Thursday, October 01, 2020

Prejudice, Discrimination, or Separation of the Familiar



     I don’t believe in race, or racism: the belief one human is superior to another based on skin color. It even sounds absurd writing it.

     If mitochondrial DNA, the genetic composition inherited through ancestry, shows the genetic composition of all humans is 99.9% the same, then race is a myth. If race is a myth, so is racism. It doesn’t exist, or someone invented it. I go with the latter.

     Even though, publicly, some of the Founding Fathers denied the humanity of indigenous and African people, they were closer than they thought to the idea that “all [people] are created equal.” In their journals and in private discussions, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, as well as many cultured Southern plantation owners, believed Africans to be human. It was simply easier to deny their humanity to justify slavery.

     Anthropologists pretty much agree we all came from Africa. We are all Africans. Some Americanists like to think we all came from the Americas and migrated the other way. In that case, I guess, we are all Maya. Who knows? Either way, it doesn’t change our mitochondrial DNA.

     Our physical characteristic differences, then, have more to do with geography and culture than biology. If we go with the movie All the President’s Men, and, true to form, “Follow the money,” we probably get closer to the truth. Race has more to do with economics than with genetics. Laborers charge for their work. Slaves do not. It causes less emotional stress, what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance,” to enslave and dehumanize those who look different than we do. 

     In the 1700s, as the slave trade was flourishing, a Swede, Carl Van Linnaius, and a German, Johanns Bluenbac, self-proclaimed doctors of science, with little formal education, created what we know today as—race and racial categories, Caucasians, Africans, Asians, etc. etc.

     Of course, as Caucasians, they bestowed on their group the most favorable characteristics and placed them at the top of racial scale, Africans at the bottom. What scientific breakthrough gave rise to the name Caucasian? According to sociologist Joy Degruy, Bluenbac thought the most beautiful caste of people came from the Caucasus region of Russia. That’s it, pretty subjective, and as Degruy likes to say, "Not much science."

     Now, none of this would be so terrible, except for the fact that these definitions of race were used during the worst of the slave trade and the American march west to prove African and Indian inferiority and European superiority. What’s disturbing is that we still use them today, and they give ammunition to White Supremacist groups like the Neo-Nazis, Boogaloo and the Proud Boys. Hitler nearly eradicated a people using this myth.

     Slavery is nothing new. Nearly every civilization since the beginning of man has owned slaves, including Africa. The difference is that many of those slaves could win or buy their freedom. In Rome and Greece, they could be acculturated into a society. African and Indigenous societies would force their slaves to fight wars for them then send them home, too expensive to house and feed them. 

     It was only Euro-Americans who institutionalized slavery, turning it into a lucrative business, more prosperous than the early Arab and African slave traders could ever have imagined. So successful was the subsequent American form of slavery, that, some historians claim Hitler studied the system to figure out how a small group of men could control much larger groups. The answer—terror.

     When the South realized it didn’t have the population to receive as many seats in the House of Representatives as the North, it humanized Africans, giving them the necessary “drop of blood” to count them as citizens, of course—without a vote.

     So, if race and racial superiority are myths, how did discrimination within American culture come to be? It was fabricated, starting with a parent telling his child, “No, you can’t play with that child. He’s too light,” which is ludicrous because skin color has nothing to do with the fun kids can have playing together. I see it every day in parks and school yards across Los Angeles, or on basketball courts, football, and soccer fields, kids and adults of all ethnicities, engaged in one activity or another, contrary to what we see on the evening news.

     The military can be a lonely time for any young service member. Let's say you find yourself transferred from one base or post to another. You don’t know a soul. What happens? Well, for me, it was organic. Standing around waiting for reveille, my eyes would catch someone who looked like me. I’d nod. He’d nod. We’d scoot over and talk.

     If I was the only one, I’d gravitate towards a guy from Los Angeles. It didn’t matter his ethnicity. We shared something familiar. If I said I was from Santa Monica and he said he was from Compton, that was enough…homecoming.

     If there was no one from L.A. then anyone from California was cool. The state shrank. I had never been to Modesto or Indio, yet my closest friends, both white kids, lived there. Sometimes, I found I had more in common with a Japanese kid from Stockton than a Chicano from Eagle’s Pass, Texas. Another close group of friends were black guys from New York City. Why? We had a love for the same music.

     I had friends from Arkansas, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Boston, New Mexico, and Michigan, guys of all ethnicities, but what drew us together was the—familiar: sports, music, books, a certain type of booze, clothes, patterns of speech, popular culture, or cars.

     The media, and, of course, Hollywood create many stereotypes. If I met an Italian kid from NY, I assumed he had to know someone in the Mafia. When I found out he was math whiz and his dad was a CPA, I’d get blown away, but I’d learn a lesson—don’t stereotype. When guys found out I was from Los Angeles, they wanted to know how many movie stars I knew.

     In the 80s, the LA Times published a series about minorities from the East Side and South Central coming in caravans to invade the rich West Side. The media and Hollywood came out with movies like Colors, Blood in Blood Out, and American Me, about the police, gangs, and violence. People thought all of L.A. was a den of thieves, gangsters, and drugs.

     About that time, I landed a job with UCLA, designing programs to encourage minority kids towards higher education. I had to make a presentation at Garfield High School, Belvedere Gardens, according to the evening news--“gangland.” Any part of town with the name "Gardens" in it wasn't good where I came from.

     I hadn’t been on the eastside in years, not since my cousins moved to Alhambra. Granted, I was now in my early thirties. I should have known better. I had a new car, a Nissan. I was afraid to park it any other place than in front of the school principal’s office. No luck, not a spot in sight. Dang, I’d probably come out, and my Sentra would be gone.

     I checked in with the main office. I was a few minutes early. I was cautious. I didn’t know from which direction I might have to dodge the first bullet. The secretary told me I could wait out where the kids were having lunch. Leery, I walked out into the sunlight, no idea what to expect, a school filled with cholos and drug dealers, kids who made more money than me. I imagined "beepers" going off everywhere. 

     Embarrassed at my own prejudice, I mentally separated myself from the familiar. When I surveyed the lunch area, I saw the cheerleaders and song girls hanging out in a corner of the yard, practicing dance moves. In another section, it was the kids in orchestra, their instruments in black cases, every shape and size. On another side of the yard were the jocks, the most popular, surrounded by hangers-on, their fans. There were skateboarders, punks, and early Goths. Finally, sitting at a bench, buried among the humanity of any high school campus, were four or five cholos, the ones portrayed in the media as taking over the city.

     35 or 40 students showed up for my presentation, a small contingent from each group in the lunch area. After I spoke, I handed out brochures and answered questions. They wanted to know more about me., how I got a job a UCLA. I told them I worked as a gardener and custodian to get myself through college. I spoke about growing up on the westside of L.A. and about the military, and I discouraged a few kids from joining.

     A few of them were already on their way to private schools in the east, better financial aide packets than west coast schools. I met counselors from LA Unified, like Tony Solorzano, Judy May, Jack Wright, Phyllis Hart, dedicated, committed educators who were already sending their kids away to college. They welcomed my help.

     It had been a good day. I realized something about American culture and how easily we can mistake a basic separation of the familiar and, instead, see it as racism, discrimination, or prejudice.

     I even found my car, parked a half-mile away, exactly where I’d left it.

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