At the request of a Baptist campus minister at a major medical school in Alabama, I invited the pastor of an African-American church to discuss the issue of violence. The minister cited a litany of examples.
He told of being denied the constitutional right to vote, and even after gaining that right following years of protest being intimidated and harassed at the voting place.
He told of his family having to pack bedrolls and food for travel as motels and restaurants would not serve them
He shared how his wife, a registered nurse with a baccalaureate degree in the practice, was repeatedly bypassed for supervisory positions in favor of less qualified whites.
The father of three small children shared how difficult it was to heal emotions crippled by years of rejection, intimidation and indifference.
Following his presentation, a young medical student asked why he had not spoken on the announced subject of violence, to which the minister answered: “And what is violence?”
“If you want to know about violence, come with me to the emergency room at University Hospital some weekend,” the young medical student responded. He told of persons being brought in who had been shot or severely cut in fights.
“The sight of blood and guts is the evidence of one form of violence,” the pastor acknowledged. This form of violence, he went on to explain, often occurs among equals struggling for survival, with little or no lasting damage after the wounds heal. “Other forms of violence are much more devastating and the wounds never heal,” he said.
Thankfully, many of the visible vestiges of racism in the world into which I was born have disappeared. My children and grandchildren have never seen the “colored-only” and “white-only” signs in public waiting rooms and on public transportation.
Removing the visible signs, however, has not done away with racism. And while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened many doors of opportunity for minorities, the legislation did not and cannot alter attitudes of hostility and prejudice.
Racism continues to rear its ugly head and is taking on many forms, including hate crimes, described as criminal actions intended to harm or intimidate people because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or other minority group status. They are also referred to as bias crimes.
By far the largest determinant of hate crimes is racial bias, with African-Americans the group at greatest risk. In 1996, 4,831 out of the 7,947 such crimes reported to the FBI, or 60 percent, were promulgated because of race, with close to two-thirds (62 percent) targeting African-Americans. Furthermore, the type of crime committed against this group has not changed much since the 19th century; it still includes bombing and vandalizing churches, burning crosses on home lawns and murder.
Yet, no one is exempt from the violence of racism as it takes on many forms and shows up in every generation. Economics is a major cause of such crimes. Massive unemployment often pits one group against another.
Another contributing factor of mushrooming proportions is known as “browning” of America.
Ethnic minorities become targets of hate crimes because they are perceived to be new to the country even if their families have been here for generations, or simply because they are seen as different from the mainstream population.
People from Latin America, most commonly referred to as Hispanics, are increasingly targets of bias-motivated crimes.
Arab-Americans are another growing immigrant group experiencing an upsurge in hate crime, largely as a result of Middle East crises and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Often they are blamed for incidents to which they have no connection.
Granted, visible physical violence in the form of “blood and guts” is real and ever present, but it is not necessarily the most devastating. It is the invisible vestiges of racism–such as discrimination, rejection, slander, slight, jokes, lower wages, lack of job opportunities, exclusion and ridicule–that threaten to render the fabric of this great nation.
While the Civil Rights Act and other laws and regulations enacted by our governments prosecute perpetrators of violent and overt economic racism, these are insufficient in resolving the conflict.
The solution will come only when individuals realize that we are all potential victims at any given time and respond as if that time had arrived. Respect for all races and ethnic groups, including our own, is the only solution.