Race and Civility

Michael Brown was a young man most of us did not know. He died and the circumstances surrounding his death are questionable. Did he commit acts that brought him within the purview of formal correction or was he simply at the wrong place at the wrong time? I do not know and most of us may never know. One thing I do know, he was unarmed and did nothing so malignant to deserve the premature end of his life.

I do not pen any of this to discuss Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin. Their end should not have happened. What I am presenting here is my sense of a wider civility in society. I am nearly always quiet about the matter of race because I greatly dislike the idea that anything related to what we do in life could be determined by our ethnicity. I hope for a more enlightened basis for judging the quality of our situations and efforts. I believe in merit almost exclusively. As a result of my views I am generally hardwired to exclude race from my perception.

The issues emerging out of the situation in Ferguson involving Michael Brown does not invalidate my view, at least to me, that race is irrelevant in judging a person’s quality. The situation does seem to suggest that something is out of balance. I have lived to see, on TV no less, the same situation play out with Rodney King, Trayvon Martin and now, Michael Brown. Some time ago, I did see, in person, a riot break out in the community I lived in at the time because two people misbehaved suddenly. Let’s just say that the strong winds carried the sent of mace spray far and wide. I learned in that situation the importance of the common civility well adhered.

I am a beneficiary of the efforts of Martin Luther King in terms of the quality of my early life and I am thankful for what he and those of his generation strove to achieve. Everyone’s blood is red and we all have the daily opportunity to try and uphold our common right to live. Still, I am seeing a world today in which there is a soft illusion of peacefulness. An illusion that works in general as to sustain the status quo but is so incomplete as to erode the faith some may have in the process of living today.

Patterns of Preference

Recently, someone introduced me to the person of Joe Louis. His is an interesting story chronicled in a documentary on Youtube. The short version is that he was a clean-cut, well-mannered individual who participated in the sport of boxing. He joined the Army and defeated a representative of the Nazi regime in the boxing ring related live on radio across the world. The person he defeated in the ring went on, a little later, to become a top executive in a major American company while Joe Louis himself passed this world penniless despite the career sacrifices he made to serve his country. I cannot say how his race mattered. It should not have, but several generations before, his ancestors were in a totally different place on the basis of their race. In the time of Joe Louis, his race and what that meant in America had meaning. Especially in the symbolic victory of his win for the psychological fortunes of the Allies engaging the Nazis. Yet, when he returned home, barriers existed between him and the life he could have lived.

Joe Louis’ life is a template for many who live in a modern society. Maybe not in the details but in the general structure. The tragedy of Joe Louis becomes the same story many people live again and again in an advanced world full of opportunity. The world is a global tribe in which technically, there is room for all. Fear perpetuates much of the disappointing outcomes to which we find in constant procession.

I do not think there is a system of racism but there are psychological tendencies that are hard to overcome. Sometimes those tendencies are very harmless. They produce camaraderie, merriment, and efficient dialog but in other cases those preferences can create a blind spot that can unintentionally destroy the merit of others. Consider the case of a recent study that showed the effects of this natural preference. Photographs were shown to two groups of people of different racial backgrounds. One group assigned blame to an innocent person of a different race involved in a conflict while the second group had a more mixed conclusion due to the broader social influences of the first group’s race in society.

Comments from a political official was seen as impolite regarding the perceived behavior of the children of another political official of a different race. The comments exist among a sea of similar expressions ranging from the exceedingly overt to the most carefully subtle. The existence of which seems to suggest that ethnic bias does exist across the society and is entrenched not in intent but simply automatic behavior. Therefore, those who may judge us, who have power over whether we simply live at all or thrive and prosper may tend to withhold opportunity and an ongoing benefit of the doubt due to natural preferences. It is a hard reality and it is one that is becoming unrealistic to say does not exist. Further analysis is described in an article titled, Why Ferguson touched a raw, national nerve.

Civility Refined

General George Washington, the first President of the US, spoke and wrote about civility. It was an important issue for him and one I think remains important today. Civility is the word that incorporates the best of all the many things we believe. When we show charity and do so honestly, when we act with honor despite an inner sense of disenfranchisement, and when we give way to others as to give true regard for their well-being then selflessness is put into noble action. We live in a world today built on a legacy of earnest civility encoded into law and culture. The error is when civility is falsely exercised to become the very mask to hide simmering disdain for another person across the table. Civility is honey over molded bread when it is simply a clever and sophisticated tool to hide the act of quietly undermining those with whom we cannot find common cause.

Young people today, tomorrow and into the future will always have the intelligence to understand the gap between what they who are more experienced of life say is the right and what is actually rewarded. The young are almost always idealistic and as the current modern world proceeds, those young may begin to outnumber others who might declare a different order than the one that rewards true merit independent of one’s appearance and familial heritage. It is time for a genuine civility, the kind that presents itself through peaceful protest as we now see in New York, London and other places. A civility that continues to develop more fully into ongoing and consistent acts of enlightenment.


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