"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929--68), U.S. clergyman, civil rights leader. Strength to Love, part 4, chapter 3 (1963).
"It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important."
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929--68), U.S. clergyman, civil rights leader. Wall Street Journal (New York, 13 November 1962).
"If not us, who? If not now, when?"
Slogan by Czech University Students in Prague, November 1989. Quoted in: Observer (London, 26 Nov. 1989).
If you do not believe that racism and other types of bigotry are alive and well in America, crossing every racial and other divide, ride your local mass transit for a month.
I caught a bus to the library the other day, and found a seat near the front of the bus. A white woman and the black male bus driver were talking about two Hispanic comedians they had seen at different comedy clubs in Denver in the past two weeks.
The bus driver said the comedian he saw (whose name I did not recognize), had played to his primarily Hispanic audience, using and abusing the "N-word" and otherwise talking like a Hispanic version of a Klansman.
The white woman had a similar experience with her Hispanic comedian, whose name I recognized from television. While this comedian's audience was one-quarter black, one-quarter white, and one-half Latino, he still played to his fellow Hispanics. He denigrated black slavery by saying it was better than being an underpaid Latino worker at a fast food joint. He also said that in a few years when Hispanics were the majority, they would show the whites and the blacks what slavery was all about.
I do not know which of the two possibilities arising from this conversation is more appalling: that the bus driver, the woman, or both were making up a story to impress or one-up the other; or that both of them were, to the best of their recollections, telling the truth.
Bigotry swims beneath the surface of our society, like piranha beneath the surface of the Amazon. Racial, cultural, educational, religious, economic, social, sexual, political, and disability-based: it is an invisible cancer, some form of which I believe every American has been afflicted with at some point in his or her life. Most of us work hard at keeping our 'illness' in remission, knowing that hatred, fear and intolerance harm us as much as they harm those to whom we direct these dark emotions.
It bothers me when I hear young black men call each other the "N-word," but I accept it for the same reason I accepted Richard Pryor using that word thirty years ago: it is being used to make white Americans more aware of their use of the word. What I can't stand are the white kids, dressing like hip-hop refugees, ignorantly using the "N-word" in a vain effort to be cool.
In case you think bigotry is solely the province of interracial interactions, open your eyes, because some of the nastiest bigotry I've seen is intra-racial, and is taking place within the Hispanic community.
It is more than the stuff of classic TV conflicts: the Mexicans don't like the Puerto Ricans, the Puerto Ricans don't like the Cubans, the Cubans don't like the Nicaraguans, and so on. Two months ago I was at a bus stop and overheard three self-described third-generation Chicanas talking about the nasty ways they were being treated by Mexican immigrants at work because they could not speak Spanish. One of the girls said that she had been called a Spanish term which, when she repeated it to her grandmother, was told it was the equivalent of calling an African-American an "Oreo."
The people who insulted these young women, because they did not fit into their narrow preconception of what a "real" Mexican-American is supposed to be, are all bigots, as much as any sheet-wearing Klansman or neo-Nazi thug. Bigotry knows no economic, racial or religious boundary. It is just as likely to find a home in someone from the 'hood, the barrio, or Chinatown, as it is to reside in an all-white southern enclave, or the posh Manhattan studio of a white radio commentator.
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