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Race matters–some reflections January 21, 2008

Posted by emsgeiss in parenting & family, politics, writing/editing/blogging.
Tags: , , , , ,

On June 23, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the infamous “I have a dream” speech after a Civil Rights march down Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Today, in 2008 on what is celebrated as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. January 21st is not his birthday, which is January 15, but MLK Day is always the third Monday in January, and on this day, I reflect upon where we have come from and how far we have to go from my perspective.

I don’t usually discuss race or race matters, even though race does still matter today. I don’t discuss it because despite my previous statement, in many ways it is a non-issue. I grew up in an integrated area and the people that my family associated with were multicultural, so while the issue of race may have lurked in the background, it was rare for it to come to the fore. It’s importance was supreme however, always being taught to rise above expectations, and probably every black, latino or mixed child born during or just after the Civil Rights era heard “you have to work twice as hard… .” And being a second-generation American the phrase had a double meaning, since it is probably nothing different than any hard-working immigrant family tells or told their children.

But the issue of race in America is still key, despite post Civil Rights Era advancements.

A short sampling of what we have achieved:

  • We have made considerable progress as a nation—never before in American history have there been as many prominent black (and other minorities) in key leadership positions in the public and private sectors.
  • Despite the previous attempts of both Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to run for president, and despite some public questioning about Mr. Obama’s “blackness,” never before has there been a truly viable black candidate for the position.
  • Oprah Winfrey is probably the most powerful black woman (if not woman in general) in modern history.
  • Thanks to the entertainment and sports industries, there are many black men and women who have attained unprecedented economic success than before for the race as a whole in this country, and while it hasn’t happened since, in 2002 Halle Berry took home a well-earned Academy Award.
  • Just last year the NAACP buried the “N” word.
  • And, the multiracial/multicultural family that I have is no longer an unusual thing. Nobody describes my son as “mulatto” (at least not to my face) and while my husband and I still get the occasional stares” from the unenlightened (as my dear friend Stacie and I like to call them), it doesn’t provoke the same sense of potential danger that such looks might have once conveyed. And rarely does anyone question why I have such a light baby or assume that I’m the nanny or babysitter.
  • We don’t know anyone (under a certain age) who uses race to identify their friends, colleagues or family members, unless there is a contextual reason to mention racial identity.

But despite of those strides, there is still more work to be done to realize Dr. King’s dream:

  • Unfortunately, neither Mr. Obama nor I can hail a cab on Lexington Avenue with great ease.
  • Affirmative Action has been questioned, it’s intent to ensure equal opportunity for those traditionally underrepresented placed under the microscope.
  • There are more young black men in prison than there are in college.
  • Being black in some circles has become synonymous with being “ghetto,” and unfortunately in many cases, the media only perpetuates the mismanagement of this equation. (Thank you 11-o-clock news for leading with the most gruesome of inner-city stories and finding the most inarticulate people to interview or give “eyewitness accounts.”)
  • The fact that the “N” word had to be buried only shows how misguided the folks were who wanted to “reclaim” and “enlist” it as something positive.
  • The fact that there are any questions about Mr. Obama’s “blackness” are being raised or that people feel that it is even an issue worthy of broaching.
  • The economic and educational divide between most blacks in this country and our white counterparts is more like a chasm.
  • The younger generations are unaware of (and surprisingly apathetic about) the fights that were fought and the people who died during the Civil Rights Era in order to allow us to vote, receive a decent education, be able to apply for and get jobs that our abilities showed we could do, achieve economic self sufficiency and so on.
  • I am often the only or one of the few black people in certain social and professional situations, and depending upon where we may be or the situation, the looks of disdain from others for being with a multiracial (read “all-white except for me”) group is palpable—charged even—from those who seem to have a “separate but equal” mentality. (Don’t worry, I pay them no mind, and go on about my business, as my grandmother would have instructed, careful not to turn my back.)

Dr. King would be proud of the achievements that have been made, but he would not be content to rest upon his laurels with the false sense that the job was done. It is clear that there is much more work, and that all of us, whether on the personal, local or national arenas, have a moral imperative to help remove the remaining barriers to Dr. King’s dream.

Copyright © 2008 Erika-Marie S. Geiss



1. jonolan - January 21, 2008

A few comments:

“Affirmative Action has been questioned, it’s intent to ensure equal opportunity for those traditionally underrepresented placed under the microscope.”

AA should be questioned – and probably discarded. While you’re absolutely correct when stating it’s purpose, it’s actual implementation has been horribly flawed and racist.

“There are more young black men in prison than there are in college.”

There are many, many more Black criminals than Black students. This is largely caused by urban poverty. Setting race aside, all sub-groups of urban poor have similar respective rates of incarceration and scholarship per capita.

2. Michele L. Tune - Writing the Cyber Highway - January 21, 2008

I’ve never understood why people look at someone’s color and treat them differently. To judge someone’s character, I look not at their color but at their heart, their personality, and what makes them someone I’d like to be around.

I guess I’m naive, because I can’t understand how others can be so cruel and heartless to anyone just because they’re darker skinned, or of a different race.

My first best friend in school was Black. I never paid any attention to her color, and she was very dark skinned. We clicked right away and so enjoyed one another’s company.

Very touching post, Erika. Thank you for sharing it.


3. emsgeiss - January 21, 2008

Hi Jonolan…thanks for commenting. Sure AA should be questioned–or at least reevaluated in terms of the present time, where perhaps it should be based on economic issues rather than racial or gender issues.

Regarding the prison vs. college comment, sure, if you live in a poor urban area and there is neither the incentive nor the push to get out via education (or the public schools in that area are substandard for whatever reasons) and those kids can’t compete, there will be more (pick a flavor) of those people in prison than in college. But, I think that there are probably more white kids who think there is a chance for college (even if it’s community college) than black kids who grow up thinking and knowing, without reservation, that it’s a viable life option. And as with almost any issue, there are a ton of other factors involved. But that could be an entirely separate blog post.

4. jonolan - January 21, 2008

Interesting thoughts, emsgeiss. I have no idea how they could convert AA into something class-based as opposed to race-based though.

I think that as racism or if you prefer, overt racism – fades and the overall situation fails to greatly improve for many, the underlying fact of classism is made apparent. Much of our bigotry seems based on socio-economic class skirmishes with race being overlaid it.

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