IEEE PULSE presents

Racism and Me

State of the Art January/February 2021
Author: Art Johnson

Racism is wrong! But, my reason for saying so is probably at least somewhat different from those other people might give. You see, racists are ruining my country, and keeping it from all of its promise. Let me explain.

The United States of America was founded by a group of idealists who believed that this nation was a new beginning, unencumbered by the accumulated faults of much older European societies from which many of its inhabitants had escaped to start new lives. From the very beginning, these ideals were laid out as the goals for a new society in which people could live free and thrive:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of ­Happiness.” [from the Declaration of Independence].

I believe in these ideals. Whereas the USA is not without problems and the inevitable shortcomings of any human-based institution, it can still strive to be as close to those goals as possible. Everybody should be able to reach their true potentials, as determined by their talents, education, and hard work. Every child, no matter the color of their skin, should have the right to dream of and realize their life’s ambitions.

“I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” [from a speech by Frederick Douglass]

America is a land of opportunity. People can rise from poverty or oppression to become successful in their ways of living. America has enough human, financial, and natural resources to fuel the American dream of a good life, well-lived, secure, and productive. The ingredient that allows these things to happen is the freedom that we have to choose our own course through life, and to be largely responsible for our own situations.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” [from the Gettysburg Address, by Abraham Lincoln]

The U.S. has been, since its founding, a land of opportunity where people came from all over the world to make better lives for themselves through their own efforts, and unimpeded by social structure, politics, or economics. This country, as well as the whole world, should be the paragon of meritocracy, as it has been for me, growing up in economic poverty, but given the opportunity for education and the rewards of my own efforts.

“And crown thy good with brotherhood,
From sea to shining sea!”
[from the song, “America the Beautiful,” lyrics by Katherine Bates]

It is a land that means all these things to me. I grew up in a large family, not rich by any means. We had little in the way of material goods, but we always knew that things could get better for us if we tried.

And get better they did. I went to school, earned academic degrees, worked hard, volunteered as much as I could, took advantage of opportunities when they were presented to me, and can now look back at a life largely well-lived. This would not have been possible in many other places of the world. I would have been stuck at the same economic level as I was when I grew up.

“O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!”
[from the song, “America the ­Beautiful”]

As a child living at home, we occasionally invited black people over to our house. My father had served in the U.S. Army during WWII, and had been in association with people of color. He never showed any indication of racist attitudes, so I never learned them, either. In our tiny town in upstate New York, there was one black family living in town and attending our school. I never detected any hint of a racial nature against this family and its members. They were part of our community, nothing different.

For my entire career, I have had close association with people of other races. I try to treat all people, no matter our differences, with respect. There is much more in common with these other people than our differences. I have had more than one supervisor of color, my daughter once brought home a boyfriend of another race, I have friendly African-American neighbors with whom I share interests and trade favors, my wife and I adopted sons from Korea, and I have had students of all races. In none of these cases was it apparent to me that they ought to be treated differently because of their races. They were all people, just like me. And, I made sure to let my university students know exactly how I felt about racial discrimination—that it is wrong.

“The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…” [from a speech by Frederick Douglass]

Racist attitudes stand squarely in the way of that opportunity for many, and that, for me, is the ­tragedy of racism. It is, in my mind, sadly wrong for anyone to deny the ideals of this country and the full potentials for anyone living here. There is no room for racism in my country. I can only conclude that racists and racism are ultimately unpatriotic. These sentiments should hold for all.

Of course I am deeply disturbed by the killings of men and women at the hands of police and other members of our populace that seem to happen much more to African-Americans than to any other race. But I am also disturbed by somewhat lesser violations, such as the case of the black woman and her son denied service at a local restaurant because the son was not dressed according to the dress code of the restaurant, despite the fact that a young white boy was sitting and eating while wearing the same kind of clothes as the black boy wore. No black person should be asked to sit in the back of the bus. There are so many cases of wrongs perpetrated on people of color in this country that they cannot all be enumerated. They happen all the time. I cannot understand how any black person could feel secure or comfortable in any situation involving the presence of mixed races. These things just should not happen. At all.

As a biological engineer, I realize from Hamilton’s Rule [1] that we are genetically predisposed to treat people like ourselves more generously than people less like ourselves. That is a fact. But, this genetic bias does not have to devolve into exploitation and lack of respect. Racism is not about genetics; it is about learned attitudes.

There is a genetic basis to tribalism. But, not all of our attitudes toward others are based in genetics. We also tend to look differently at people who are not like ourselves in physical appearance, attitudes, experiences, or culture. Different beliefs and life experiences than our own can drive a wedge between us. The wedge may be large or small, depending on how much we can accept them as they are, and how understanding we can be. But cultural bias exists.

There is a natural tendency for white people to want to be with other white people and for black people to want to associate with other black people. Being emotionally close to someone of another race can elicit feelings of shame or guilt for individuals of both races.

My chosen professional field of engineering can also be lifted up as a model of racial virtue, as well also for differences of gender, religion, background, or any other differences among us. Professional engineering culture is, for the most part, consistent and widely shared. Most engineers have come from essentially similar interests and backgrounds and have similar educational experiences. The work environment is technical and relates to technical people. Engineering performance is paramount, and rewards are, or should be, based on the merits of that performance. Thus cultural bias in engineering practice is, for the most part, minimized. There should be no discrimination in engineering based upon factors other than job performance. Among those other reasons for prohibited discrimination are race, religion, and sexual orientation. There is no room in engineering evaluation other than professional accomplishment.

On the other hand, there are small differences brought to engineering professional life by the diverse backgrounds of the people involved. These small differences can be valuable sources of creativity, acceptance, understanding, and communications with clients and customers.

“The truth is white people can take a break from conversations about race at any time. We can send our kids out to play, put on a hoodie, go for a run, take a drive, all without considering the risks involved. As white people, there’s no requisite conversation with our young sons about keeping their hands visible at all times because police brutality is rarely a danger for them. Whites don’t often fear friends and family members being pulled over for a ‘routine stop.’ As white parents, we aren’t afraid for our children’s safety 24/7 because we don’t need to be. Our racial privilege allows us to set these thoughts aside or not engage with them at all.” (from an essay by G. Pierleoni [2])

It is a lot tougher to be a black person in this country than it is to be a white person. It is easy for white people, who do not experience the effects of racism on a daily basis to forget that it exists for others. If white folks are not made aware of racism, then it doesn’t really exist for them. If racism is brought to their attention, then racism may be too abstract for true comprehension of its meaning in people’s lives. Only by personally experiencing racism, and knowing what it is like when racism is absent, can one learn about the true meaning of racism. It may be a white person’s privilege to forget about racism, but here is one white guy for whom racially motivated discrimination is highly upsetting. To be honest, racial incidents bring me to the brink of tears. I think it is because it strikes at the core of my beliefs in respect, justice, and the ideal way of life among us. I want to believe in the best in people, but racism forces me to do otherwise.

There have been times when someone with a racial attitude will make a comment in my presence about black people. I cannot condone such talk. It disturbs me greatly, and sometimes I say something about those comments, but sometimes not. Perhaps I am at fault for not always saying something, but, in any case, I resolve to have nothing more to do with that person. That included a barber of mine at one time. After those comments, I never went back.

As a white person, I can’t experience racism quite like people of color can. However, I can still be deeply disturbed by the presence of racism in my country, whether I see it or not, if I still know it exists.

But, make no mistake about it; racism cuts both ways: white on black and black on white. My white grandson attending Lincoln University, a predominantly black university near Oxford, PA, felt so seriously threatened several times in class by other students because of his skin color that he left the school. I, myself, have been the recipient and object of racist comments from black-skinned people who had never met me before. My Korean-born sons had to deal with racist comments while they attended public high school. Racism can happen between any two races with obvious differences.

“…with Liberty and Justice for all.” [from the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance]

When people talk about racism, the word “justice” is often heard. Although the dictionary defines the word of justice as equivalent to fairness, the use of the word justice, as it is used recently, means more like retribution. The problem with this use of justice is that it is meant to convey redress for an act of transgression that has already happened. What we need more of is respect, so that transgressions don’t happen in the first place.

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love,
No not just for some but for everyone.”
[from the song, “What the World Needs Now is Love,” by Jackie DeShannon]

My country called me to serve in the army during our unfortunate military exploit in Vietnam.

There, I came in contact with men and women of all races. There was a racial incident that occurred during my tour of duty. I was assigned as duty officer for the unit on a night when some black enlisted men became agitated because of some incident that had happened earlier that day. I went to talk with these men and assure them that I considered them to be men equal to any others in that outfit, and that we would not condone anything different as long as I was around. They quieted down, and I think I saved a racial incident from exploding into something a lot worse. I showed these men the respect that was due them, and they listened to me. We were equals on a human level.

There are more than 50,000 names engraved on the Vietnam War Memorial wall in Washington, DC. Each name belonged to a person who did not have a chance to live a long life, raise a family, and love someone close. Each person named on the wall gave his or her life because their country asked them to be there in Vietnam. The rest of us, including me, owe it to those who gave up their lives to make this a better country, the land of the free, because of the brave.

I do not like kneeling for the national anthem as a protest against racism and inequality in this country. In my mind, the flag and the anthem are abstractions of the ideals of this country: what the country was meant to stand for, and the country that has been so good to me, the country that enabled me to rise from a family severely financially constrained to an educated person, the country that I served in Vietnam, although I must admit that war was, at best, justifiably questionable. The flag is not called “Old Glory” for no reason, but some seem to have forgotten the moniker and the reason for it. To kneel is to place the reality of its faults over the aspirational ideality of its promise. I prefer to honor the flag as the symbol of the good of the country instead of the representation its shortcomings, whatever people may think they are.

The killings are another matter. More insidious is the common exploitation and lack of respect toward people of color when they encounter a person not of color. This happens too often.

This could be a much better country if we all just tried to get along together. Show respect and tolerance. To do otherwise is to deny the very basic principles upon which our nation was founded. We all must do our part. And, the result would be an America that lives up to its promise.

“And I’m proud to be an American
Where at least I know I’m free
And I won’t forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me
And I’d gladly stand up next to you
And defend Her still today
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land
God Bless the U.S.A.”
[from the song “God Bless the U.S.A.,”
by Lee Greenwood]

We all know what the problems are. What we need are solutions. Unfortunately, we cannot fix this alone. We cannot correct across the racial divide. We white folks need to engage with other white folks; blacks need to engage with blacks.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed in his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of the creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

The ideals of the founding of America are just that—ideals. Perhaps we cannot expect to ever achieve those ideals. But, they are worth the effort to try to reach them. A nation truly based on brotherhood can be a beacon to guide the rest of the world. Living in such a nation where everyone is treated equally can be the best of all lives. I would hope that we can all agree to try to live up to the dreams of our forefathers. It certainly would be worth the effort.

“You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one”
[from the song “Imagine,” by John Lennon]

References

  1. A. T. Johnson, Biology for Engineers, Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis, 2019.
  2. G. Pierleoni, “One white privilege: Taking a break from thinking about race relations whenever they like,” Baltimore Sun, pp. 9, Jun. 3, 2020.

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