Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Bigotry Bell Curve

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.  Edmund Burke

This past Thanksgiving I was thankful that I am white. The holiday that has always meant caring, gratitude and celebration of life was stained by bigotry. I sat at a Thanksgiving table and heard racist comments about the conflict in Ferguson. I was taken aback, as much by the fact that no other people at the table spoke up as by the comments themselves. I chose to politely discuss aspects of the events in Ferguson that conflicted with the statements still hanging over the table like acrid smoke. I was able to close the conversation, but not before my holiday celebration was poisoned. Perhaps I should have immediately called out the comments as what they were, racist. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve not had to consider how best to respond to comments like this before.
I came home from Thanksgiving dinner and opened Facebook. Almost immediately I saw a comment from an acquaintance about the shooting of the 12 year old black boy carrying a realistic toy gun in Cleveland. The comment was that any kid who was brandishing a lifelike toy gun with the police around was “too stupid to live”. As horrifying as the comment from the original poster was, I was more upset by the number of my friends who “liked” this comment. At this point the video was out showing the boy being shot within moments of the police arriving. The audio of the 911 call was out with the caller saying they thought it might be a toy gun. At best, this was a situation that the police did not handle well. If this had been a neighbor’s kid or any other white kid in a nice neighborhood who did something dumb one afternoon, I am sure people would have found some more sympathy for the family and questioned how the police handled the event.
These events brought home the degree to which bigotry is creeping into mainstream life, even in the communities I am part of, communities that have not allowed open racism before. The comments from people I know hit me harder than the actual social tragedies that they were discussing. I began to recognize the shift in what is acceptable social behavior. As bigotry becomes acceptable I feel its cold touch in my life. The bigotry bell curve is sliding in the wrong direction.
I mulled over this phenomenon, this recognizable bigotry not just in the news, but in people I speak to. I was meaning to write this piece this winter, but set it aside. Then a racist killed nine black people in Charleston. As if to rub salt in the gaping wound, multiple public figures refused to accept this as the hate crime it so clearly is. A white man with a history of supporting white supremacy walks into a black church and murders nine black people at a prayer meeting. These basic facts were available the next morning, yet the apologists continued to search for more politically acceptable alternatives. Refusing to recognize this tragedy as murder motivated by racism is to wrap acceptance of bigotry in colored paper and bows and hand it to racists.

History is replete with examples of horrific behavior from bull baiting to slavery to hurling Christians to the lions. In each case these “traditions” were validated with acceptance by the people of the time. Blessed with general acceptance individuals were spared the difficulty of evaluating their behavior against their conscience. By and large we go with the social norms that we grow up with. Few people stand against evil that has woven itself into general social practice, and often those few are ridiculed. We seldom think deeply about established social practices, quick to latch onto reasoning that supports our continued acceptance, whether passive or active.
The bigotry bell curve is sliding towards more racism, more hate, less tolerance. It is becoming more acceptable to make comments that imply an insult to people of other colors, faiths or sexual orientation. As these comments accumulate it becomes more acceptable to make obvious disrespectful statements. As these disrespectful statements accumulate it becomes easier to justify disrespectful behavior, laws and actions that discriminate against people who are not part of our comfortable social family. We control the social norm on bigotry in our daily lives. As the norm allows more and more subtle racism, the extreme end of the curve allows more and more violent racism.

We all define what behavior is socially acceptable. From the most depraved killer to those who dedicate their lives to helping others, we each have a hold of the social scales and help pull the norm towards our own behavior. Each and every one of us is responsible for racism. That means you. We each have a responsibility to recognize bigotry. You don’t need to use a blatant word like “nigger” to wield a racial slur. Indeed the deliberate use of the words “them” and “they” can be just as powerful. We each have a responsibility to recognize bigotry not only in strangers, but in ourselves, our family, and our friends. We need to set an example of tolerance and respect for people of all races, faiths, and sexual orientation. We must speak up when we see or hear behavior that is disrespectful. We must step out of our comfort zone and dare to be the few that will likely be ridiculed. We won’t solve this problem by being Facebook warriors, decrying the actions of the shooter from afar. We will solve this problem by each of us grasping the social scales and pulling them towards tolerance and mutual respect. We will solve this problem by our example, by our respect for others, by recognizing bigoted behavior and identifying it as such. Maybe we even lose a friend no matter how hard we try to make our position known in a reasonable way. Maybe we save someone’s dignity, someone’s life. When we choose to lead with our conscience regardless of social habits or niceties, when we deliberately take responsibility for the social norms around racism, we will pull away the fabric of acceptance that breeds and rationalizes bigotry and hate.