Race in America: Of Dogs and Men

Is a German Shepherd any less of a dog than a Golden Retriever? Certainly not, they are obviously modified forms of the same species which are entirely capable of interbreeding, equally fitting as pets, and equally worthy of human attention. It is fascinating that we have recognized this fact nearly as long as there have been domesticated dogs, and yet we have been unable until recent years to apply this same logic to our own species.Yes, there are obvious differences in people of African descent, of Asian descent, of Arab descent, European descent, and so on—the most obvious of which is skin color—and yet, despite the underlying humanity in us all, much of the conflict in the world has revolved around these perceived racial lines for such a long, long time. It is sad, truly sad, that anybody has ever been defined by such trivialities.

We like to think that we’ve moved beyond this, and in many ways we have. It’s not uncommon to have coworkers of different racial backgrounds, friends across color lines, and even romantic relationships that would have been unthinkable mere decades ago—I’m in one myself, me being of European descent and Melissa being of Asian descent. But while everything looks great on paper, it’s not uncommon to hear a completely different story. Prominent spokespeople for many so-called minority groups are quick to tell us that there is still widespread discrimination in the United States.

So who is right? Probably both . . . and neither.

We have, in fact, come a long way from where American society was when it entered the 1960s with regards to race, and while racism does still exist in some geographic and societal realms I truly believe that the overwhelming majority of our population adheres to the values of racial equality, fairness, and justice as best as they know how to. Where we all disagree is in how we should go about fostering this racial fairness, and—often more divisively—how we should deal with teaching and understanding our despicable past.

The answers aren’t to be found in people like Senator Trent Lott, a man who—while I believe good at heart—is insensitive in practice, and incapable of solving our racial problems. No, many on the right are simply too apt to doing incredibly stupid things that hamper their ability to improve race relations at all. But the answers aren’t to be found in people like Jesse Jackson either, as racial agitation in the manner that he does it simply rallies minorities and angers much of the majority. Both extremes, however, do have insight worth investigating in spite of the flaws that prevent either from accomplishing anything positive at all.

That’s the strange dynamic that we live in today. There are two diametrically opposed political views with regards to race which are both only half right. It is not until those two halves are brought together that we can finally begin to put the era of race behind us, and move into a brave new world where we are all—to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.—judged not by the race that we are, but by the people we are. This is not a conservative idea, this is not a liberal idea, it is a human one. It is one that we can all agree on, or so I would hope.

Dogs are not complicated animals. Their purpose, as best as I can tell, is to eat, sleep, mate, and—for most breeds—be friendly. Their lives lack the complexity and complicatedness that we humans—with an air of superiority—make a habit out of. But for all our advanced systems of doing things we sometimes fail to grasp and utilize those most basic aspects of lifestyle that dogs seem to understand inherently: fundamental loyalty, unabashed goodness, and equality between breeds (races).

Maybe we’d be better off if we thought, at least on some level, like dogs. I doubt that they sit around barking about whether it’s fair that German shepherds are some percentage more likely to be guard dogs, or if poodles really deserve to be pampered by rich old ladies, or anything like that. Of course not, they’re dogs. But these very trivialities—on a human scale—are at the core of an insane amount of public discourse in the United States and I don’t see it calming down.

So before I do exactly what I’m saying we shouldn’t—add my opinionated voice to the complexities of race relations in America—do me a favor and take a look at how other animals, like dogs, deal with these kinds of things that we toil with day in and day out. It’s a great way to gain a little insight and perspective on an issue that has been clouded by passionate emotions and hidden agendas on all sides.

I took an introductory anthropology course during my second year at George Mason University and it proved to be a very interesting course on the development of humanity as we know it today. Anthropology is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “The scientific study of the origin, the behavior, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans.” My professor, a very knowledgeable and energetic woman, was keen to point out to our very diverse class that race was not biological. No, she said, race is sociological. It is a way that humans define themselves, a way they categorize themselves, but we are indeed all of the same species, the same blood, and the same bodies.

No matter if you vote Republican or Democrat, no matter whether you agree with a word I say in my upcoming two rants or not, I think we can agree on these points. They form the core of my personal views on race, and my ideas for a solution to racial problems all stem from these ideas on what race is. But my only real point in this introductory rant is that we’re pretty much all coming from a similar structure of core beliefs and arguing over how to implement policy to achieve our agreed ideal.

In a country like ours—one built around public debate and opposing views—it’s easy to get hung up on all these places where we disagree and never even realize that the opposing sides share a lot of common ground. On the issue of race relations, I think we all have more common ground than we have disagreement. We all want to see Martin Luther King’s famous dream come true, and we all want to live in a fair and just society (this, of course, is not including supremacist groups—but they are an extremely small minority and barely worth attention. They will be dealt with, in passing, in my third rant).

So it is on this leveled playing field—devoid of those passions and agendas that cloud most public discourse on the issue—that I go into this three part series on race relations in the United States. I hope that you will find it enlightening, informative, and interesting.

The Folly on the Left

The political left—liberals, or the Democratic Party, which will be used interchangeably—seems regarded as the champion of racial equality in our society. In fact blacks, the most quintessential example of a previously disadvantaged racial group in our county, overwhelmingly vote Democrat in election after election after election after election. But despite this support, and the “champion” status they seem to have attained with relation to race, this political group makes some fundamental mistakes in the drive for true equality.

The most obvious example of mistakes on the left takes the popular name “Affirmative Action”. This well-intentioned and well-institutionalized system was devised in and after the civil rights movement to give extra boosts to minorities when applying to colleges, government jobs, and wherever else. It sounds great, and for a long time it worked great.

What we have to remember is that we were coming from a “zero-point”. Many colleges had no black students, for example. Many companies had no minority employees. Something drastic was required to truly integrate what had been in many places a segregated society both in an institutionalized and happenstance way, and affirmative action helped to fix that.

It took, and still takes, many forms. Some places it’s a straight quota system, a requirement that if 15 percent of the society is black then 15 percent of the students should be black. In other places people of minority background might be given 20 extra points on a standardized test or an admissions point system. There are thousands of variations and combinations of these, but in all cases the point was to bring minorities into places where admissions or hiring policies had been slanted against them and institutionalized that way.

But affirmative action was a “quick fix” method to get minorities integrated into “majority” society without wasting any time. It worked, I have no qualms about having done it, but we must recognize it for what it is—a quick fix. Like any other quick fix—whether to a computer or to a car or to a society—it cannot be applied indefinitely without becoming counterproductive.

Quick fixes are designed to be applied “in the mean time” until a more permanent fix can be put into effect. For example, you can patch a hose in a car with some duct tape but you can’t run on that tape forever—you need to replace the hose. The permanent fix for racial inequality is to bring everybody up from youth believing that everybody is equal. The permanent fix is to level the slant that ran against minorities for so long that affirmative action had to counteract. How can we level a slant when our quick fix obscures where it is, or even if there is one anymore?

The liberal insistence on the continuation of affirmative action at this point is simply insisting on an instituted racism with the intent of eliminating racism. It no longer works, and beyond that it actually inhibits our march toward equality by fostering resentment among some of the majority who feel lesser qualified minorities can get jobs or get into schools that they cannot.

Moving more into perceptions, I have begun to detect a certain undercurrent among blacks both personally and among commentators on television that runs against the Democratic party. It’s not nearly strong enough to move significant numbers of these black Democrats into becoming Republicans, but it’s enough that the Democratic party should be worried. This undercurrent comes from a growing perception that the party takes the black vote for granted—assuming that they can get away with publicly supporting affirmative action, getting the votes and victory, and then doing little for the black communities that helped them into office.

I don’t believe for a moment that liberals intend to come across this way, but by basing the vast majority of their policy on affirmative action and social programs like welfare to help poor minority communities while glossing over on any kind of drastic economic improvement programs for these areas they seem to be missing out on any slant-shifting and piling on the quick fixes. Cities like Washington, DC, which are centers of minority community have been run by Democratic administrations for decades, and yet the plight of minorities in poor communities in these cities has not drastically improved.

When you couple this seeming lack of improvement with staunch liberal aversion to things like school choice/school voucher programs—which polls have consistently shown to be supported by a wide majority of blacks in the United States—you can easily see where this new anti-Democrat undercurrent is coming from.

What it boils down to is that liberals have the right intentions and the right public relations with minority groups, but they make the mistake of hanging their hopes on quick fixes and easy answers. Affirmative action is not the answer and it is not the way to end the race relation problems in the United States, and yet it forms the lynchpin of Democrat race policy. But for all these flaws Democrats are still in the best position to improve things because blacks and many other minority groups are willing to listen to them.

If the Democratic party were to take a fresh new look at their policies on race—where they work and where they fail—and not be afraid to shift them as a result I think it would go a long way toward truly easing racial tensions. After all, these tensions are driven primarily by economic differences—most of the rich people in this country are white, most of the poor are minorities—and nobody ever became rich by getting a handout or by getting 20 bonus points on their college admissions score by no merit of their own. It takes more fundamental changes to the way we do things, to the communities people come from and the homes that they grow up in. No matter how much support from blacks and other minorities the Democrats have gotten, these changes have not happened to any drastic extent and it’s beginning to hurt the party—slowly but surely many are beginning to question the sincerity of the equality rhetoric.

In the game of politics, perception is as important as substance. While the left has made some mistakes on the substance front, they have had little problem with the perception part until recently. But even despite the undercurrent I spoke of, Democrats have widespread minority support throughout the United States because overall people still believe that they are looking out for those who are at a disadvantage. Simply by shifting their focus from feel-good short-term programs to long term development the left could accomplish what’s it’s been trying to for a long time—true racial equality—and help keep minority groups on their side.

Now don’t worry, all you Democratic readers, I’ll be ripping the Republicans apart on this issue in my next rant.

The Folly on the Right

The political right—Republicans, conservatives, whatever you wish to call them—are likewise guilty of failing to understand and remedy race relations problems in the United States. While in principle this bunch is moving in the right direction—trying to eliminate ineffective and “reverse racist” programs like affirmative action and the like—I don’t go far out on a limb to say that many portray conservatives as racist themselves.

Like most widespread perceptions, there is at least a modicum of fact in this assertion. I don’t believe that Republicans are racist, as a whole, but I do concede (as a professed conservative-leaning independent) that the party has made the dire mistake of embracing fringe groups and their current and former members.

I do not believe this stems from malice, but simply from a desire to garner as many votes from their constituency as possible. In the southern and rural states where Republicans reign supreme, there are small but ever-present racist and supremacist groups and individuals that the party counts on as free Republican votes. The right doesn’t want to piss off their voting extremists any more than the left wants to piss of theirs. Fair enough, but it sure looks bad.

This has resulted in an underlying feeling among many racial minorities that the Republican party is a friend of the KKK, the other white supremacist groups, and the backwards redneck who individually hates all the black people at his school just because they’re black. Automatically as a result the right becomes the bad guys, the enemy, and the group trying to take away minority rights.

It’s an unfair assumption, but an understandable one as far as I’m concerned. But most Republicans don’t seem to understand how vilified they are, and the little things they do—thinking they’re doing them righteously—can incite vitriolic retaliation. Ask Senator Lott.

While I feel sorry for Senator Lott—losing the Senate Majority Leader spot for praising Strom Thurmond (a formerly open racist) on his 100th birthday—I recognize that his effective congressional demotion was a necessary one. He threatened the party because what he did was perceived as such a racist thing. But demoting one seemingly racist Senator—whether actually racist or not—will not change how racial minorities look at the Republican party.

For example, conservatives are quick to defend the presence of the Confederate flag on state buildings or in public places. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t consider that flag racist. Being a student who has taken college level history I am well aware that the Civil War was about a lot more than slavery. Heritage is a good thing to keep track of, and I sympathize with those who want to see a Confederate flag on display in museums, at civil war battlefields, etc. But flying over official state buildings? Present as part of a state flag? Come on guys! The war was in the 1860’s, the Confederate States of America lost, lets move on already.

Heritage aside, in most cases the Confederate symbol wasn’t added to these flags and buildings until some had the bright idea to raise them in protest of the civil rights movement. I’m almost pained to say it, but the left—and many minority groups—are completely right on this one. The Republicans need to be working toward getting minorities to take them seriously, rather than looking like racists who are fighting a 140 year old war. Again here, we’re not talking about intent or action but simply perception. Conservatives need to be perceived as a group receptive to the feelings, goals, and wants of minorities rather than as their enemy. They are failing miserably.

Even with affirmative action programs—a field where I typically agree with the Republicans—changes to policy and presentation of what they want to do would go a long way toward easing widespread minority fear of Republicans. The fear among blacks and other minorities I’ve talked to is that if affirmative action were eliminated they would have a more difficult time getting into good colleges and good jobs because the predominantly minority public schools they attended failed to educate them properly. This is a fair and reasonable fear.

So how could conservatives work around this? Perhaps an affirmative action program based around socioeconomic status rather than race would do the trick as a step away from race-based policy. Instead of saying “you’re black, so 20 extra points!” it would be “you’re from a poor neighborhood with crappy schools, so 20 extra points!” All of a sudden you open up possibilities not only for black and hispanic kids in crappy inner-city schools, but for the white kids at those same schools who have gotten the same raw deal from society. It’s not race-based, but would still give many minorities that leg up they’re afraid of losing.

Texas has enacted a particularly interesting system where the top 10 percent of students from every high school are pretty much guaranteed free or seriously reduced price college educations in Texas public universities. This applies to rich white schools, poor hispanic schools, and every other school. Who needs affirmative action then?

My point is that threatening to take something away—especially something people rely on—pisses people off and scares them. It’s no wonder that an insane number of blacks—over 85 percent—vote Democrat! But if minorities perceived conservatives as wanting to adjust rather than eliminate affirmative action, maybe they’d be a little more receptive to what Republicans have to say.

Like liberals, I believe that conservatives have the best of intentions when it comes to race. But while the Democrats are focusing on quick fixes and easy answers, the Republicans almost seem to be forgetting there is even a problem. This denial hurts the party and its efforts to “reach out” to minority groups. Conservative policy must reflect a good will effort to make our society a truly equal society, which means conceding that the Confederate flag has no place over a state house and that some kind of affirmative action program not based on race wouldn’t necessarily be so bad. If nothing else, it would at least be a baby step toward a world where we are not defined by our race.

But the core belief that people should be judged on their merit and not their color or economic status is still a good, true belief. Conservatives should never step down from this stance. As I said in my previous rant, “ . . . nobody ever became rich by getting a handout or by getting 20 bonus points on their college admissions score by no merit of their own.” But I also said that in politics, perception is as important as substance.

There is no shame in shifting slowly from a race based to a merit based society if making the change overnight would make people hate you, and indeed Republicans are hated among many for that very reason. It looks like the right wants to agitate, to take things away, and to hold minorities down. I certainly don’t think it’s true, but to break that perception conservatives will have to adjust their policies, reevaluate their rhetoric, pick their battles, and continuously and openly reject that white supremacist constituency.

After all, what are they going to do—vote Democrat?

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.