Jewish Journal


April 9, 2010

America and Ethnicity


Yesterday’s Wall St. Journal had an article by the frequently controversial Dorothy Rabinowitz titled, “What’s Not Happening to American Muslims.” It was prompted by remarks attributed to Tom Hanks in his promotional tour for his epic HBO series, “The Pacific.”

Hanks is reported to have observed that our war with Japan was one of “racism and terror” and “that should remind us of current wars”. 

Rabinowitz used the Hanks remark to make some important points about America and how different we are than most of the rest of the world in terms of acceptance of differences, tolerating dissent and respecting minorities. She correctly observes that,

No menacing hordes, then or later, ever threatened American Muslims—and it has been an insult to the nation to have been lectured to the same way after every attempted terror attack, as though wild mobs of citizens might actually run through the streets attacking Muslims. Even as the ruins of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon still smoldered, countless Americans had reached out to their Muslim neighbors to reassure them.

Her theme is not unlike that we raised in a blog last November after the tragedy at Ft. Hood, and which has been documented in poll after poll.

Where Rabinowitz goes further than we did is to seek reasons for Americans’ susceptibility to the view that we are just an admonition away from taking out our anger on minorities here who are related to our enemies abroad. In a hard hitting analysis she refers to the tragedy at Ft. Hood last year,

But, it’s a good bet, few like Maj. Hasan’s superiors—so addled by raised consciousness and worries about appearing insensitive to Muslims in the service that they ignored even the most extreme expressions of his enmity to the United States and its military, his praise of suicide bombers, his jihadi contacts.

Every report of any activity bearing resemblance to anti-Muslim sentiment became, in short order, essential news. Every actual incident, every report of a nasty sign, fitted the all-consuming theme taken up by large sectors of mainstream media: that the country’s Muslims were now hapless targets, not only of the national rage at the atrocities committed by Islamic fundamentalists, but also of racism.

It was a view especially well in accord with those of a generation schooled in colleges and universities where pathological extremes of sensitivity to claims of racial, religious or sexual insult or charges of gender bias are considered perfectly normal and right

(emphasis added).

As one who, in my previous position at the Anti Defamation League, spent years promoting an “anti-bias” curriculum, the A World of Difference program, and its attendant workshops—-I believe she is on to something.

Although exceptionally well-intentioned, many of these programs do indeed promote a “pathological extreme of sensitivity” as part of an effort to further multi-cultural understanding and diversity. The “sensitivity” engendered has a definite downside. Normal interactions are often perceived through the prism of victimhood and otherwise innocuous statements or acts suddenly become suspect and an innocent individual gets labeled as “insensitive,” or worse, “racist.”

I can recall an A World of Difference conference in Boston almost two decades ago at which the keynote speaker was Jane Elliott, a former school teacher who gained national renown for her classroom exercise (which became an ABC network news special) that ostensibly taught her students what the experience of discrimination was like (“Eye of the Storm”). Unfortunately, the message was bound up with the theme that whites are, by definition, racist or at a minimum, culpable beneficiaries of a racist system.

At the time, I found her presentation simplistic, patronizing, and insulting (I actually left the room because I found her message and demeanor so insufferable).In her workshops she described herself as the “resident BITCH for the day—-Being In Total Control Honey.” 

Sadly, Elliott’s pernicious theories have infused many “diversity training” programs—she is, after all, considered the “foremother” of diversity training. Here’s a snippet from an interview where she unabashedly sets forth her worldview:

I think white people aren’t aware that racism isn’t just wearing white hoods and burning crosses. It’s also fixing the system so that black votes don’t get counted. It’s refusing to open the polling places in precincts where most of the eligible voters are people of color. It’s outlawing affirmative action at the state level even though it has proven successful. It’s building more prisons than we build schools and guaranteeing that they will be filled by targeting young men of color with things like the “three strikes” legislation in California, and the DWB—“driving while black.” These are problems encountered by young black men all over this country. It’s the fact that there are more children attending segregated schools in the U.S. today than there were previous to Brown vs. Board of Education. It’s white flight and red-lining by financial institutions. It’s television programming that portrays people of color as villains and white people as their victims. It’s ballot-security systems, which are used to intimidate minority voters and so result in the very activities which they are supposedly designed to prevent.

A black woman at a major corporation here in the Midwest just this past summer, after hearing my presentation, almost beating on the table as she spoke, said, “For the first time in my life I can be me. It’s real; it’s not my imagination.” Because, you see, we have convinced ourselves and tried to convince people of color that they’re imagining the racism they’re experiencing, that they’re paranoid.

Her theories and outlook have permeated “diversity training” programs whose stock in trade has too often become guilt and looking for boogey men to confirm theories about how America operates. Non-minorities are taught that they are the beneficiaries of “white privilege” and should as a result be laden with guilt for having put others down—-intentionally or not. Racism, the participants are told, constantly animates our actions and lurks just below the surface—- it’s often unconscious (we may not even realize that we are animated by bigotry and insensitivity) yet are as guilty as if we were purposeful haters.

Rabinowitz accurately describes this nonsense for what it is—-a skewed unrepresentative distortion of America today. The sooner we shed ourselves of the Jane Elliott-like view of America, the better off we will all be. Hopefully, we will be able to acknowledge where America has come in terms of race and inter-group relations and the real work that we have left before us.

America isn’t perfected, but it surely it is not the dreary place Elliott and her clones would have us believe it is.


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