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The Tentacle


December 3, 2003

Race: Destructive Social Myth That Must End

Mike Kuster

Lennie Thompson, president of the Frederick Board of County Commissioners, introduced legislation last year to end government endorsement and perpetuation of a destructive social myth that, throughout history, led to slavery, mass murder, and fractured societies. The very ideals of our country are undermined by this myth. Rather than One Nation, our country is made up of nations based on a lie.

The last Board of County Commissioners rejected Commissioner Thompson’s proposal to make it illegal for any county government agency to ask a person to specify race. This would force the county to be ineligible for many state and federal grants.

Commissioner Thompson has hinted that he is ready to propose the legislation again. With a new board, the legislation has a second chance of passing.

As a Democrat and student of race relations, I must whole-heartedly endorse Mr. Thompson’s legislation. For far too long, race has destroyed this country and world, our society, and any hopes of fulfilling the dreams of our forefathers and those of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Am I proposing that we should ignore our differences?

NO!

Our differences must be embraced and accepted.

Our differences, however, are not based on race. Race is a figment of our collective imagination, a social myth. Try defining race. It is an impossible task. Even the federal government, the greatest sponsor of this myth, recognized that race cannot be defined.

In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau allowed respondents to specify more than one race. Shortly thereafter many states adopted the same rule. Maryland is one of those states. Any form that asks race must allow the respondent to choose more than one category.

Here are some questions and answers to defy your understanding of race.

A perfect example of the lack of our ability to define race lies in the category of Hispanic. The choice for this category varies by jurisdiction. The federal government used to ask you to choose one of the following: White (not of Hispanic descent), Black (not of Hispanic descent), or Hispanic. So, if you are white, but from Spain, Portugal, or any country south of the U.S. border with Mexico, you are Hispanic. If you are Black and from the same locations, you are Hispanic.

This, of course, is ludicrous. It defies logic.

Or is it?

What is Hispanic?

As a result of this question, Maryland and other governments decided to correctly identify this as a culture. You are first asked whether your culture is Hispanic or not. Then, you are asked to choose your race.

Another example is to ask Egyptian-Americans to choose their race. Many of us would assume they choose African American or Black (this is how this category is now labeled). After all, their ancestry is from Africa. We would be wrong. Egyptians are white, as are all Northern African peoples. Also in the white category are all those from the Middle East. Therefore, Jesus was white. Of course, his skin was not white, but we cannot have a black Savior, can we?

To mix things up even more, ask someone from outside the U.S. to identify their race. You will get a whole new set of categories, distinctions and opinions. In fact, the definitions you hear will be so far from our understanding of race that you will tell them they are not defining race, but socio-economic class.

In fact, the entire concept of race can be linked very closely to socio-economic class. That is not to say that black equals poor and white equals rich, though there is quite a case for that. Race, while we know it as skin color, carries a stigma much closer to socio-economic class distinction.

The stereotypic stigmas we associate with race actually reflect the cultural differences of economic status. Hence, “poor white trash” and “blacks” fall into the same minority category. Society labels them with the same characteristics: lazy, dishonest, stupid, etc. It’s all an easy way to overlook reality.

Of course, our society has made great strides in trying to understand race and to end racism. We have come to a point that most people accept our differences. People of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds succeed in our society.

The playing field, however, is not yet level.

The question is why?

We’ve been working hard for decades.

Why are the wealthiest black families in America still nowhere near being among the wealthiest families in America?

Why does race continue to create problems in our schools, our neighborhoods, our lives?

There, of course, is no one answer.

A step to ending race as a social myth and ill is to end government sponsorship of the myth and ill.

I remember filling out 4-H Membership Enrollment Forms each year as a child. The form asks for the member’s race. As a child, I thought I’d better put down White, because 4-H is for white farm kids. If I put down a minority race, I was sure the 4-H organization would reject my enrollment in 4-H.

This may sound crazy, but this is truly how I thought this question was used. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned how this question was used. It wasn’t until I met the 4-H Educator, a black man, who became my close mentor, later my boss, and now one of my best friends, that I understood what the question aimed to accomplish. It wasn’t until this man became my close friend that he understood why I refused to enter any child’s race into the enrollment computer for the state. I always put “Other.”

Later in life, my supervisor told me I needed to record the race of students I taught after school. I asked her if I should ask them their race or just make it up. She instructed me to just label the kids.

So, I told her of two students I taught who were brothers. Their biological father was black and mother was white. They lived with their mother and her white, racist boyfriend. On a field trip, these two young men, who would be labeled as black by any government race-counter, started calling black men on the street by using the N-word. After my story, I asked her how they should be labeled, and added that I doubted they would like to be labeled black.

I can’t imagine a more degrading and embarrassing thing to ask another human being than “What are you?”

Imagine a young minority person filling out this form. How must it feel to have to label yourself?

Imagine having parents from different races. How do you choose between your parents?

Now, imagine hearing a loud speaker in the school calling all minority boys to the gymnasium. What will happen down there in the gymnasium? Is the KKK waiting?

Or, imagine hearing over the morning announcements that minority students are invited to attend a special meeting after school.

Better still, imagine reading in the paper that the D grade must be put back into the grading system or “your race” can’t progress through school.

What do these things accomplish?

Minority achievement has not increased since the creation of such programs. In fact, the gap increases.

They only perpetuate the problem. They continue to segregate.

Asking someone their race to participate in government programs is akin to asking citizens to line-up according to race.

You cannot quantify a person skin color without being a racist.

You cannot ask children of “mix-raced” couples to choose one parent’s heritage over the other’s without being a racist.

The answer to this racist question can serve no purpose to government. The answer is subjective, often painful, and never accurate.

It is asinine to believe that people know their ancestry beyond a few generations. Those who do know only know because our society forced them to know they were not “white.” Even at that, they rarely know for sure that there is no “white master blood” running through their veins.

The government must stop this ridiculous perpetuation of a destructive myth. It does nothing to progress our society to a true melting pot. It does nothing to promote pluralism. It only hurts us.

Help the cause! Urge our Board of County Commissioners to do the right thing and end government-sponsored racism.



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