Racism: The Real Enemy that Will Destroy the United States
I have perhaps spent far too many hours in the days that followed the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center staring at the television set. I could not stop myself from watching heroic men and women of all shades and hues sift through that seemingly endless rubble, gingerly pulling forth parts and pieces of other Americans. This could not be real. It can’t happen here. But it was real and it did happen here. And it came from a real enemy brought from outside of our borders.
I, like so many others, watched and listened to the various commentators analyze the tragedy and do their own sifting through the carnage that had unfolded. I listened, and as I did, I heard some voices that resonated above others. The voices were those that spoke of America needing to come together. “We must unite to defeat the terrorists who are responsible for this act and not allow this enemy to destroy us” were words that rang out from Washington to the shores of California. Soon, other voices echoed that call and in the days that followed, nearly all newspaper headlines and television news proclaimed to us in one single title: America Unites.
The altruistic part of me thought that maybe this is a new beginning for our country. Maybe we have united to defeat this enemy. Maybe past selfishness, greed, petty jealousies, feelings of entitlement and the need to dominate or feel superior to other people are also being buried alongside the unwilling martyrs who gave their lives so we could arrive at this point.
However, the realist in me and that part which is the psychologist (the professor in higher education,) knows our country’s newfound united condition is temporary. I know it is only temporary because from my study of psychology I have learned that whenever a group of individuals with some shared values are threatened by an outside enemy and the threat is perceived as one of life and death, the group will pull together. However, I also have learned that the coming together lasts only as long as the outside threat exist. Unless some kind of intervention takes place, when the threat is gone or lessened, individuals generally return to their old ways of thinking and behaving.
I also know that the current patriotic uniting under a myriad of flags is temporary, because my knowledge of history has taught me as much. The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I and World War II are all examples of when individuals in this country united to defeat an outside enemy that threatened to destroy us. But when the enemy was defeated, the country rushed to return to “normal.” And in many ways, that is this country’s current stance. We are encouraged to get on with our lives and to not let the terrorists’ acts disrupt our way of living. Let’s start the planes flying again, let’s open the financial corridors, and let’s begin the games of baseball and football. In short, let’s return to “normal.”
In many ways, I agree that we do need to return, in part, to life as it was before the tragedy. But only in part. Before moving backward, we have an opportunity to move forward and to learn what history has shown us about returning to the way it was. Those of us of African descent know firsthand that returning to normal in this country has meant a return to an almost daily confrontation with racism. The lessons of history have taught us that following each great conflict that threatened to tear this nation apart, Black people faced the same issue after the resolution of the conflict that they faced before. The issue was racism. Following the close of each great conflict, we were put back in our place of a second class inferior status. For example, the Black men and women who fought for freedom in World Wars I and II never envisioned upon their heroic return that they would be separated from their White compatriots and literally regulated to sit in the back of the bus.
Racism has always kept this country divided. As with all enemies, it cannot be defeated until we unite. Already as the country moves to get back to the way things were, I hear stories of death threats being telephoned to mosques; of a man being killed simply because he wore a turban; and of schoolyard bullies picking fights with Arab American children. Yet is racism a big enough threat to have us declare war on it? Can it possibly destroy two monumental towers and claim the lives of more than 6,000? And can it send a nation into shock leaving a vast majority of its citizens feeling fear and venerability? My answer to those questions is yes. Racism is not only capable of doing that, it has already done that and more.
We as a country have yet to realize that racism is a threat to us that is stronger than any terrorist. It cannot be defeated until we come together in understanding how it tears our nation apart. Those of us in higher education, regardless of our discipline or skin color, have a rare opportunity at this point in history to bring rational thought to defeat this constant threat. I am confident this nation will survive and eventually control the outside threat of terrorism. I have less confidence about defeating racism. Perhaps history will prove me wrong. I don’t think it will, but I hope it does.
— Dr. Richard P. Francisco is a psychologist and faculty member at San Jose State University in California.
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