Bridging historical differences in race and culture can be a tricky objective.
How do we continue to make progress as a country, without dismissing the history that precedes us?
If so many of us have positive individual relationships with people of a different race, why is it the perception that race relations, specifically black and white, are deteriorating?
If the solution involves pointing the finger and identifying obvious differences, or a desire for the “the other side” to make changes, or a large government program to right the past wrongs, then our efforts are sure to end in continued resentment and misunderstanding.
Because the premise of those solutions is that race relations are measured in aggregate as a whole, instead of the sum of the individual relationships that exist across the nation. As General George Patton said, “If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”
My personal opinion is that in the predominance of communities, race relations are fine at the individual and local level. In other words, Americans of different races interact in all aspects of life — socially, educationally, professionally, etc. — with the same friendship, love, respect, professional courtesy and neighborly spirit as members of the same race.
Never before in the history of this nation have there been so few racial barriers between individuals to choose how to interact. If you have a spouse, friend, work colleague, classmate, or teammate of a different race, it is probably irrelevant to your daily interactions. Interacting with people from a different race is truly not a problem for most Americans. I have personally witnessed it a thousand times in the athletic, military, educational, social and corporate arenas.
The problem lies in the projection of “racial group-think”, via the segregated echo chamber of targeted media.
Wikipedia’s definition of an echo chamber: “In news media an echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented. The term is by analogy with an acoustic echo chamber, where sounds reverberate.
Years ago, the news was mostly consumed in the evening, from three impartial and professional channels: ABC, CBS & NBC. They all attempted to offer an objective take on news, and the result was a wider range of views presented each evening. Viewers were forced to consider various perspectives. When CNN introduced 24-hour news, it triggered a race to exploit technological improvements in a variety of media outlets, to deliver news and viewpoints catered to each target market.
For example, if you have a particular view on immigration, you probably tune in to one of the thousands of cable channels, websites, podcasts and radio channels that support your position. It validates one’s thinking, but it is also creating a closed minded, or myopic society. Take any issue, and most people naturally gravitate towards an echo chamber of their beliefs. Over time, the views become engrained, and we contribute to, support and vote for a candidate that best reflects the views.
In addition to political affiliations, the echo chamber also intensified the “racial group-think” of self-segregated communities, because the targeted marketing of viewpoints delivers unique messages to receptive audiences. Consequently, when a group witnesses a traumatic event, like the recent police shooting and protests in Charlotte, everyone turns to the echo chamber of choice and their views are quickly solidified.
So, if we interact just fine at the individual and small group level, but seem to have a wedge in between the way different races see cultural and national issues, what can be done to reduce the echo chamber induced perception problem?
Not much, absent a censorship of the media. However, we can recognize that the reactions of the group, and perceived strained racial relationships, do not reflect actual individual relationships, but simply an amplification of the echo chamber.
An overreaction to these events is not warranted. Ask yourself this question: How many actual relationships between black and white individuals do you think were destroyed because of the terrible events in Charlotte for example? I would guess, very few.
Therefore, I believe the key to improving perceived deterioration in race relations involves looking in the mirror. The change must occur at the individual level, regardless of how long it takes. We must all strive to improve socially, educationally and professionally.
Personal success changes negative bias.
Having a genuine interest in other human beings, changes negative bias.
Finding common interests, regardless of how small they are, changes negative bias.
It starts with the person in the mirror, and the reverberations can grow exponentially.
Today I was listening to an episode of “Desert Island Discs”, a BBC show that interviews interesting people and learns about their life via musical selections. The guest was Nadiya Hussein, a British Muslim citizen of Bangladeshi background, who won a popular reality TV show called British Bake-Off in 2015.
After thriving in school, Nadiya had an arranged marriage in her early twenties. Instead of pursuing her interests, she stayed at home to raise her children, often times growing depressed and isolated.
Her husband, recognizing her love of baking, encouraged her to enter the show. After 30 rounds of relentless judging, and 15 million viewers in the final episode, she used a combination of wit, creativity and cooking skills to emerge as the victor. She even made a birthday cake for the Queen. In the process, she positively altered the opinion of a nation toward her race and religion.
Viewers heard her story, and identified with her struggles, hopes and dreams, independent of the superficial physical and deep cultural differences that existed. This five-foot tall, Muslim mother of three wearing a hijab was named one of the U.K.’s 500 most influential people. It is said in the U.K. that Nadiya has “done more for race relations than any great government program could ever do”.
In the “Desert Island Discs” episode, Kirsty Young asked how she handles verbal abuse and negative images ascribed to her based on race, culture and religion. She responded:
“I don’t retaliate to negativity. If I respond to negativity with negativity, then we have evened out. I need to be the better person, because I have young children, and the one thing that I don’t want my kids to do is have a negative attitude of living in the United Kingdom. Yes, there are those negative people, but they are the minority, but I love being British, and I love living here, and this is my home, and it always will be, regardless of all the other things that define me. I want my kids to be proud of that, and I don’t want my kids to grow up with a chip on their shoulders. So I live as positively as I can, and all those things that do happen to me, it happens to other people too, and we just deal with it in a positive way”.
That passage took me back to my youth, and the lessons that I received from my parents. My father was born into poverty and minimal opportunity in 1916.
He found his opportunity in the early 1940s, when the nation was fighting World War Two. My father and his brother, students at Howard University in Washington D.C., volunteered to train and serve as young U.S. Army officers, as there was a need for leaders of the segregated black units.
The country had not yet provided civil rights, voting rights, and was characterized by Jim Crow segregation laws and deep-seated institutional racism. How did he deal with it?
He, and many others like him, decided to contribute to the nation at its’ hour of need, in hopes that his stellar performance and sacrifice to America, would be rewarded in future generations. He was a true patriot, asking not what he could get from the government, but what he could contribute.
My parents never burdened us with the yoke of painful life experiences from the past, so we could proceed in life without the baggage. They remained positive and hopeful for the future, and that attitude taught us to create bridges between races, instead of widening gaps.
I mentioned earlier that any large program that seeks to “right yesterday’s wrongs” must always be considered in the context of what is fair today. Otherwise, it will not correct a past wrong with a right, but it will compensate for a past wrong with a new wrong. In the long run, it only creates a culture of entitlement for the recipients, and resentment for those who perceive unfairness.
President Nelson Mandela understood this point, and decided to embark on a plan of reconciliation after spending 27 years in prison. When he was freed and elected to assume the awesome power of the South African presidency, he had to make a decision on the course of a nation. Mandela knew that the most productive way to move forward, even after the years of pain that he had endured, was not by revenge and reparations, but by reconciliation.
In the 1960s, after the valiant Civil Rights movement lead by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many justice seeking Americans of all races and religions, affirmative action based on race was introduced. It was needed, and appropriate at the time. It was the moment when black Americans were first able to truly walk through the door of equal opportunity.
Today, the institutional bias is not based on race, in my opinion, but economics. Modern day affirmative action programs are needed, but they should be based purely on financial and hardship measures.
I do not believe that my children deserve to receive preferential treatment at the expense of a poverty-stricken white child from the Appalachian Mountains, simply based on skin color. It is just plain wrong.
My preparation and work ethic was rewarded with opportunity and a vast network of support, of all races. It has allowed me to seize the opportunities and develop a solid financial position for my family. Future opportunity and support should be given to children and families that need the help to level the playing field, regardless of their race (and other demographics).
This country needs all of us to ignore the echo chamber, and decide that we can each take a small step towards their fellow human being, and bridge a gap. I’m not talking about a false, robotic attempt to make a statement. I am referring to simple actions that define individual relationships; warmth, courtesy and the willingness to look for bridges to find common connections with each other.
If we all genuinely strive to build or improve an individual relationship with a person of a different race, we will drown out the sounds and thoughts of the echo chamber, with the sound of our actions.