Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Passover, Racism and Other Hidden Slaveries

Yesterday, I was watching a TV segment about a (relatively) famous controversial interview. In honor of the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Ted Koppel did an interview with Al Campanis, General Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. During the interview, Koppel pushed Campanis on the issue of ongoing racism in baseball. He asked why, despite there being so many African-American players, there were none to speak of in front office or managerial positions. He said that many believed that smacked of a underlying racism among “baseball people.”

Campanis responded that he truly didn't believe it was racism. It was, instead, the simple fact that blacks didn't have “some of the necessities” to succeed in those positions.

That's right. It's not racism. It's just that blacks are inferior.

People were shocked to hear Campanis say this. Not for the obvious reason that it's a shocking thing to say. Not for the almost as obvious reason that it shocking that he would let himself say it (the article, and the segment I was watching, talks a lot about why, and how greatly, Campanis was disoriented during the interview. Essentially, his guard was completely down, and he said something that he never would have said, even if he thought it, under normal circumstances). No, people were shocked because Campanis was exactly the type of person who'd be expected to not believe this kind of claptrap. He was with the Dodgers, for cripes sake—the very team with which Robinson played. He had been a personal friend—roommates, even—with Robinson. He was one of the first players to publicly support Robinson.

He was a good guy. People who knew and loved him rushed to defend him as such. It was unfair, they said, to call him a racist, because so much evidence pointed to the fact that he was nothing but.

So, how could it be that this good guy, this representative of non-racism, could be spouting this kind of garbage? How could it be that he was a racist, after all?

My opinion? This points to the problem with defining someone as “racist.” What I mean is, there's a problem when we define “racism” as a single quality, and assume a person either has it, or doesn't. Either person is a racist, or he/she isn't. Clean and simple.

But, that's not how the world works.

Racism isn't one thing, and it's not an all or nothing thing. Racism is a quality, a flaw, that all of us possess, in some quantity or another. There are some people who are quite obviously extremely racist—Nazis, Klansmen and the like. There are some people who are all but devoid of racism. Most of us, I'm pretty sure, are somewhere in between those two poles on the spectrum. We harbor racist biases, prejudices, and so on, to some degree. Many of these, maybe most of them for most of us, are subconscious, and we may not even be aware that we have them. So, when someone accuses us (or someone we love/respect) of being racist, we angrily reject the accusation. “I'm not racist, and I can prove it.” If I can provide a strong counter example—evidence that I'm not racist, examples of my open-mindedness and tolerance—then it proves that I'm not a racist. But, in reality, it doesn't prove that. All that it proves is that I'm not a frothing at the mouth, extremist racist. It doesn't prove, not one bit, that I'm not racist at all.

And, frustratingly, it derails the conversation. Now it turns into a ridiculous back-and-forth of “You're a racist; I can prove it” followed by “No, I'm not; I can prove it.” And thus, it prevents a real, meaningful, potentially helpful discussion about actual racism. About what racism is, and how it affects us. About how we identify it in ourselves, and in others. About how we can end it.

I can't help thinking that this same discussion is incredibly important in relation to the Trayvon Martin case. On the off chance you don't know what I'm talking about, you can read about it here, but the salient point is that an African-American teenager was killed, and the evidence seems to show (although many dispute this claim) that he was guilty of nothing except of being black.

I've read some pretty upsetting things, some of them by people I know, and who I frankly expect to know better. And, some of them have been upsetting, at least in part, because they make the claim that this isn't, at all, a racial issue. Race had, and still has, nothing to do with this.


Look, I'm not claiming I know exactly what happened. But, if a white man kills a black man, especially one who is unarmed, and he isn't arrested for it, then it's impossible to say that race is not a part of this. We don't have to assert that racism was the only reason the white man killed the black man. We don't have to assert that racism was the only reason that the police didn't arrest that white man. We don't have to assert that racism is the only factor which drive those who call for his arrest, or who support him.

But, do we really have to argue whether or not race and racism is a part of this?

Do we really want to pretend that this situation is nearly as likely to happen in a world which is free of racism? Do we really want to pretend that our own views on this are not inherently and unavoidably influenced by our own racism, however mild it may be?

I called this post “Passover, Racism and Other Hidden Slaveries.” After I wrote it, I realized that it's easy to assume that I meant that racism is the way in which we still keep African-Americans enslaved. That's not what I meant (although, it may well be true). What I meant is that racism is, among other things, a slavery which binds us all. It is something which enslaves me, and almost certainly you, as well. I am much less racist now than I was years ago. I hope to be free of all racism, someday. But it would be arrogant folly of me to claim I don't have any racism in me. I'm not proud of it—in fact, I'm quite ashamed of it. But I am proud of the fact that I recognize it, and I actively work to minimize it.

The first part of solving any problem is, of course, recognizing that the problem exists.

And that's what brings us to Passover. There are two well known spiritual approaches to Passover (actually, there are many—but I'm only focusing on these two). One is to understand that Egypt, which in the Hebrew (Mitzrayim) actually means “the narrow place” or “the confining/constricting place” does not refer simply to a single empire which lived and died thousands of years ago. It refers to anything which constricts us. Anything which keeps us from being who we truly want to be. Anything which enslaves us.

And, the other approach? That teaches us that the worst kind of enslavement, the enslavement in which the Israelites found themselves after hundreds of years of servitude, is not even knowing that you're a slave. Is not even realizing that there's something better. that there's a freedom which awaits, if only I'd try to get there.

Racism is, clearly, just one example. But, it's one which has been in the press, as always, quite a bit. And it's one which has been on my mind. And, sadly, it's one which probably applies to all of us. Acknowledging the racism that we see is not the same as calling someone a Nazi. And, we should react as if it was. We can never be free unless we know what we need to be freed from.

This year, we are all slaves. Next year, may we be free.

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