America Beyond the Color Line (2004)
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Still a Question After All This Time I have never felt that the mere act of electing a man with a black father proved that racism was no longer a Thing in the United States. Indeed, I've long thought the most interesting thing about his election was that he was a black man whose ancestors were not slaves in the United States; he is not merely a black man but the son of an immigrant. How does that fit into our national dialogue? I went to an extremely ethnically diverse high school, and I would imagine most of my classmates can tell you their own experiences with racism--not just the black kids but the Hispanic ones and the Asian ones. Indeed, I have my own stories. I've seen things, and I've experienced things. I think the only way you can think racism is over in this country is to deliberately blind yourself to the world around you, be it through not seeing what happens to people or through not seeing anything outside your circle. This was well before the most dramatic revelation given to Henry Louis Gates that racism is still alive and well in the United States, but he went and examined a bit more of the world of race relations in 2004. He went everywhere from the projects of Chicago to the heart of Hollywood, from academia to the military, Wall Street to Washington, D.C. Not only was he examining the effect racism had on individuals, he went looking to see what had changes, what was continuing to change. Were things getting better? Would they continue to do so? Few Americans ever get so comprehensive a look at American society, even leaving aside the fact that he was focusing almost exclusively on the lives of black people. From the halls of the Cook County jail to the red carpet at the MTV Movie Awards, he took a snapshot of a culture and presented it for PBS and the BBC. Including a random, unscheduled interview with Alicia Keyes, who happened to be filming a music video next door to one of his interviews. The truth becomes obvious--there is no single, simple answer to the problems which plague black America. In Hollywood, part of the problem is that it's a very insular industry. It's hard for anyone to break in who isn't already connected somehow. However, there is also the simple fact that movies with black leads generally make less money than movies with white leads, and film is a business. Similarly, it is important to educate those children of the inner city, but for what? They need role models showing them what to do with that education. (There is a claim that you can be an entrepreneur without a high school diploma, and that may be true, but there has to be someone at that company with enough education to keep it afloat!) If you can make thousands of dollars a week selling drugs, what's your motivation to make minimum wage flipping burgers instead? There is no single answer, and for some reason, everyone seems to expect one. It's also true that the problems are not exclusive to black America. If Henry Louis Gates had gone to the [i]barrio[/i] instead, he would have seen similar problems. Many Asian neighbourhoods. Heck, there are white neighbourhoods with similar problems, though at least a poor white kid can fake being a middle class white kid better than a poor black kid can, and some of those problems still are tied to skin colour. Education is the single best weapon against poverty, and our culture looks down upon the educated. In black culture, it is seen as "selling out," "acting white," and that's a big problem. The miniseries quotes the saying, "You can't pull down the master's house with the master's tools," but he immediately asks what other tools there are, and it's the best question of the entire show. There are no other tools available, and once you claim them for your own, they're not the master's anymore. Perhaps that's the most important lesson to be taught, and there doesn't seem to be anyone teaching it. I am exceedingly fond of Henry Louis Gates. I have a hard time picturing him as a "Skip," though that's how he introduces himself every time he meets a new person. Still, while I don't drink beer, I wouldn't mind sitting down to have a chat with him, be it about race relations, genealogy, or just what book he's been reading lately. The history of black America is important to the history of America overall, and it's a good thing that we have such a genial man teaching PBS viewers that. Unfortunately, to a certain extent, teaching PBS viewers about the problems with face relations in the United States is preaching to the choir. But we are, for all that, still living in a country where a small, slender middle-aged man who walks with a stick can return home from vacation and be mistaken by one of his own neighbours for being a burglar. Still, we're also in a country where he doesn't blame all white people for one ludicrous event, though I would imagine things were a bit strained in the neighbourhood for a while.
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