The United States has been struggling with racial issues since long before we were the United States. History has left us with an ignominious legacy of racial division that is being repaired only incrementally. Landmark changes in law, especially since the mid-1960s, have gone far in leveling the playing field in commerce, housing, employment, and educational opportunity. But the great advances in legal rights belie the fact that racism is still alive and virulent in many corners of American society . Some plagues just aren't curable through experiments on laboratory mice or through legislative acumen.
Racism today is usually -- though not always -- much more subtle than in decades past. While this certainly is good news, in a strangely ironic sense, it is even more problematic: it is often not possible to distinguish between friend and foe until harm has been done.
To address the scourge of latent racism, even though it is always devoid of a justification, it may be useful to consider some of its causes, including:
- not enough direct contact with people of other races;
- characterizations in the media;
- fear of the unknown;
- beliefs that people of other races have disproportionate power over society and control of its infrastructure;
- beliefs of some that they are disadvantaged by the advantages of others;
- beliefs of some that they are disadvantaged by Affirmative Action efforts to neutralize the traditional advantages held by those of European ancestry;
- restricting one's interest and concern for other people to only the tightest of circles (one's family, extended family, and others of similar heritage); and
- cultural preferences: the inability to appreciate Jay-Z or Neil Diamond lyrics.
It could be suggested that one common thread can be found in all possible explanations: a limited, or total absence of, understanding between peoples.
Ideas / Solutions
Although the question of how to remedy the situation is perplexing, our nation could benefit by everyone getting to know each other better. While many already have, many more should. Some have led the way by creating enclaves of a "painter's palette" society (wherein each color retains its own qualities, yet, co-existing and often fully commingling into one, as opposed to a "colorblind" society which tries to ignore the distinct qualities and attributes of its members). The interaction which is part of the daily lives of those living in "painter's palette" communities, such as Oak Park, Illinois (just outside Chicago), provides valuable guidance for those who have not yet reached that point.
One way to help build bridges between cultural groups is for families to form Family Cultural Exchange Clubs (FCECs). Through such a program, families consisting of at least one parent and one child could form neighborhood clubs designed to spend time with families of other ethnic and racial backgrounds. In some neighborhoods, the clubs themselves would be a showcase of diversity. In these cases, at club meetings, families could be randomly paired with other families, initially for joint outings and eventually for dinner parties at each other's homes.
In other instances, clubs will finds themselves to be homogeneous. Also, within a diversified club, there may simply not be enough families of one background to enable one-to-one pairings of all the families. In both of these situations, a club could pair itself with a club from another part of town that has an imbalance of families from a different racial or ethnic group. There could be an informal network of clubs that would facilitate the pairing of clubs. Also, a family paired with another in their same locale could choose to be paired with an additional family from a different part of town.
Local government would be the key to making this happen. By sponsoring the system, it would establish that it is a local priority, give reassurance to those who might have reservations, encourage the proliferation of FCECs throughout the area rather than in just an isolated instance, and coordinate the collaboration between clubs in disparate parts of their city or county. State involvement could further encourage this approach, and be a resource for various local governments who seek to interact with FCECs in neighboring parts of the state.
Whatever logistics would be chosen, multiple-family outings of this kind would enable parents and children to share in the experience of getting to know a family of a different background. It will help both the adults and the children better understand each others’ perspectives and concerns. By spending time together on outings and in each others' homes, it can be expected that the families will develop a comfort level, and even a friendship, with the other family.
If it is true that racism and prejudice are rooted in fear of the unknown, which, in turn, is rooted in a lack of understanding, then FCECs would provide an opportunity to breed familiarity, commonality, comfort, and friendship. FCECs could open some doors and, for those who participate, at least, begin to chip away at America's most pervasive societal shortcoming, one family at a time.