How Do You Fix the Problems of Race in America?

Before I started writing this article, I thought perhaps I’d write an article about Elmo, because no matter what you say, everyone loves Elmo, and no one ever gets upset. Having said that, I’m going to talk about a subject that no one wants to talk about, mainly because to do so automatically causes the person talking about it to be perceived as either a racist or clueless.

I was watching a science fiction show from the BBC (British Broadcasting Channel), and something kept striking me as odd, but I really couldn’t put my finger on it. The show was about some frumpy woman reporter who solves science fiction mysteries with a couple of neighborhood kids, which happen to be about three or four high school youths who bounce back and forth as to which ones are the main characters at any one time. One of the main characters of the kids is a young black man, who plays one of the main character’s best friends. As I continued watching this show, it started to remind me of a previous season of Doctor Who (the new ones broadcast over the last few years), and I realized that there had been a central black male character who played an off and on love interest for the main female partner of the Doctor. It was when I thought about these two characters that I started to realize what was wrong. It took only a few American shows on television for me to realize exactly what that was.

Let me explain by first pointing out what is so significant about these two black characters on both of these shows: Not once was I ever reminded that they were actually black. The parts they were playing could have been played by anyone of pretty much any race or ethnicity. They fit in so well with the fictional dynamic that I started to think that perhaps they were creating some kind of weird fantasy in Great Britain. And then I started to understand that these characters represented something even more fascinating: They didn’t have to “act” black in order to be black. They were accepted no differently than any other character on their respective shows.

Now, if I was to watch something like Law & Order in the US, I’m immediately shown that the one main black character is a street-talking, tough guy who fits a very strong stereotype, which not so ironically was somewhat created and prepetuated by the former hip hop/rap/whatever star who plays that particular character. As I moved from one show to another, it was very rare to find an African-American actor or any ethnically-diverse actor who was not playing to an identity that was substantiated by a whole lot of stereotypes and markers that continue to separate disparate identities from the centralized, white, middle class expectation of what is often construed as mainstream. A few anomalies do come to mind, however, like Tony Stark’s buddy in Iron Man, who represents a military colonel, not played using any obvious stereotyical constraints. Or Morgan Freeman when he plays a scientist or detective. But those are rare exceptions. Instead, I find myself seeing way too many television shows and movies where whenever there’s a call for a person of race, color or ethnicity, the part is usually played to maximum effect by revealing how diverse that individual can possibly be.

It shouldn’t go without saying that such continuous uses of identity might actually be creating serious problems for any type of reconciliation or desires for integration. During the 1960s, there was a huge battle fought for desegregation in the nation’s schools, because smart people realized that separating people by differences was going to continue to make it impossible for this melting pot of ours to ever actually start melting. But something happened that we should have figured on, but we seemed to ignore it once we won our little victory in the courts and on the school steps. We forgot that previous separation might just make it very possible for continued separation once we got people into those schools together. Having been brought up during that period of desegregation, it was not unusual for me to experience large periods of time where I lived with separation in the schools themselves. Blacks sat with blacks, whites sat with whites, and Hispanics stuck with Hispanics. There were a few cross-overs, but there needed to be more, and the institutions themselves did very little effort to actually break down those barriers. Today, they’re institutionalized, and I don’t see them breaking down any time soon.

Part of the problem is that the organizations that were formed to end the separations are now part of the continued separation today. Civil rights leaders of the past, who were instrumental in getting people to rise up and be noticed, are still fighting the same battles today, but instead of pushing for desegregation and cooperation between disparate entities, the fights usually end up being more geared towards future separation and honoring identity rather than melting identity so everyone can be cooperative and as one.

What decades of this behavior have done is set up a paradigm that I don’t think is going to easily be fixed as long as we keep going on with the same MO we’ve been using since day one. Add in socioeconomic problems, and we’re at a point where I don’t think we have any recourse but to try to fix this now or end up at a point where it can never be fixed by peaceful methods. I”m starting to fear we may already be at the saturation point as it is.

A year or so ago, I was attacked and beaten by three young black men who targeted me because I was an easy target. It has been so hard to not see this as a racial thing and to keep from painting every black male I see as a potential attacker. Since that moment, I get nervous and extremely defensive whenever I see a group of young black men walking towards me on the street. It shouldn’t be that way, but it only takes one incident of such impact to cause someone to change his natural way of thinking about things. I still find myself crossing to the other side of the street when I see a group of young black men walking towards me, and that was something I never thought about doing before.

Our society has managed to create an identity marker of race and ethnicity that is continuously perpetuated by our media and entertainment entities. Part of me thinks that by doing so, we’re also telling people of diverse race and ethnicities that it’s okay because it’s expected of them to be like the stereotypes we put forth in these channels. Yet, something tells me that if I was walking along the street in Great Britain and I came across a group of young men of a different race or ethnicity, I’d probably not have the same complications as I do here. And that tells me that we’re doing something seriously wrong here. Whether it’s due to the drug culture we’ve developed that’s tied to a gang mentality, or if it’s just a side effect of the continously divergent class distinction we have in this country where wealthier people are further and further removed from the poor, I’m not sure. But something’s seriously wrong.

Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone is actually working on making things better, but hoping that continuing to do the same things we’ve been doing will somehow improve the general picture. But that’s never going to work. We have a real race problem here in the US, and part of the reason we’re never going to solve it is because no one wants to talk about it. We have this PC spin to everything these days, and the only people talking about race are the ones who are consumed by it, which means we’re going to continue trying to solve gushing chest wounds with band-aids.

So, here are a couple of thoughts.

1. The problem needs to be addressed by everyone, not just by former civil rights leaders or sociologists who think the solution is to have government create more bureaucracy. Everyone needs to be involved in both the planning and the implementation.

2. Poverty needs to be addressed and dealt with. Too many people are struggling to survive, and whenever you have that dynamic, you have people willing to do some unruly things to gain leverage over others.

3. We need serious conversation about the drug war. It has created an element of society that should never be a part of our very foundation. Whether the solution be legalization, even stronger enforcement, or whatever, we need to get everyone involved in tackling this issue. Or it will continue to destroy us.

4. Schools need complete integration. The goal should be the elimination of race, not the celebration of it. Unfortunately, there are too many people tied to the benefits of separation and identification. That one hurdle may never be achieved, which is sad because this is probably the one hurdle that might make the biggest difference.

5. Elmo needs to be involved somehow. He always gets this right.

Author of Innocent Until Proven Guilty and 15 other novels. Writer, college professor and computer game designer.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store