UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

On Racism

What is racism? How does it move? How does it breathe? How does it grow? From this windy hill outside of Boston, racism looks like the monster of Southern slavery conquered by the mighty Martin Luther King, Jr. Racism looks like the horror of the Holocaust. Racism is implicit in the war in Sudan and the war in Iraq. Racism comes to us as AP news briefs, death figures, and reports of mass graves.

But racism isn’t only in the history books and distant war reports. Racism is all around us, and if we’re not careful, it might get up and do something.

It’s important that we understand racism with as much clarity as we understand alcoholism. Racism is real and it’s capable of causing unimaginable atrocities. There is no way to expunge racism from society – we cannot wage a war against it, because it is an idea, and to wage war on an idea is contrary to the Bill of Rights. The important thing is to understand racism, its causes, and its symptoms.

So what causes racism? Is it passed down from generation to generation through wars, stories, and songs? Is it a way for people to simplify the world, a way to blame others and absolve oneself? What if someone were to capitalize on racism politically?

Take for example, Senator George Allen (R) of Virginia. In his time as governor of VA, Allen declared April Confederate History and Heritage Month, displayed a Confederate flag in his living room, and hung a noose in his law office. In his campaign for re-election to the Senate this autumn, he made news by calling a rival’s volunteer of Indian descent “Macaca”, the racial slur which means “monkey”. Was Allen’s faux pas merely a slip-up by a genuine Southern racist? Or was it politics, something to rally his base? Something akin to President Bush calling the campaign in Afghanistan a “Crusade”?

Racial boundaries are being emphasized around the world. The New York Times reported that anti-immigrant sentiments are surging in Russia. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that skinhead violence is on the rise in America. This September, Congress passed a law requiring 700 miles of fence between our border and Mexico’s.

The philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Why don’t we all take a good long look at history, and its lessons for us today?

I had the benefit of seeing a country recently torn by ethnic war, the former Yugoslavia. I didn’t comprehend the power of racism and war until I visited Sarajevo. Sarajevo before the war was a multi-cultural metropolis, where Bosnians, Croatians, and Serbians would dine together. After the war, a Bosnian woman told me, “We will say hello, and talk to the Croatians, and the Serbians, but we can never bring up the war.”

In Yugoslavia, the war drums rolled out amidst the rise of nationalists to power in six republics. The speech that propelled Slobodan Milosevic to power was a sentimental jumble; it simplified politics into a battle between Serbia and the Ottoman Empire. This nationalist rhetoric manifested into a racial war across Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo, the rumblings of which we still hear today. This should be a warning to us. We cannot allow racism into politics, because it will fuse racial alliances, and could lead us into war – a war that has been much anticipated by racist organizations.

The Republican candidate for governor, Kerry Healey, has been accused of race baiting by Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman Phillip Johnston. One of the Healey campaign’s recent stunts was to send a bunch of “inmates” dressed in orange prison costumes, early one morning, to hold signs in front of her opponent Deval Patrick’s house.

In Healey’s most controversial TV ad, a woman is followed through an empty parking garage. The voiceover says, “If anyone you knew actually praised a convicted rapist, what would you think? Deval Patrick did.” Deval Patrick did correspond with and offer support for Ben Laguer, who was convicted of rape in 1983, and claimed that he hadn’t received a fair trial. Globe Columnist Adrian Walker quoted Rev. Jeffrey Brown responding to the ad: “It’s one thing to talk about a candidates record around crime and another to use black males as a foil to get the corner office.”

I don’t want to be the boy who cried, “Wolf!” But it should concern us that politicians might be willing to draw on latent racism, if it secures them votes.

The most important thing to do when political rhetoric becomes racist is to speak up. Vote. Reach out to people of other races. UMass Boston is one of the most diverse universities in the world. Diversity is power. Enjoy it.

In her 2006, UMass Boston commencement speech, Catherine Reyes said, “Please look around you. How many familiar faces with different features but a common smile do you see? We are diverse. That is one of our greatest strengths. In the face of conflict, the solution is not to hope that our differences will go away, or that we can send them away. We need to value our diversity, without feeling threatened by our differences and fearing the ‘other’.”

Fear is a powerful weapon. Be immune to it. The best thing to do when the political rhetoric turns racist is to confront it at every opportunity.