A Word in Edgewise: Race, Ethnicity, and the Status Quo


Columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. recently made some telling remarks on the subject of race in relation to the case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager who was shot to death February 26 in Sanford, Florida, by neighborhood watchperson George Zimmerman.

“I’m here to explain why George Zimmerman is white,” Pitts began, referring to a reader’s letter he had received that complained, “Mr. Zimmerman was Hispanic not White plez (sic) do your homework before writing your column!!!”

“’Hispanic’ is not a race,” Pitts pointed out, “but an ethnicity,” and noted that one’s ethnicity was, until relatively recently, how a person primarily thought of himself. Slaves in their native cultures did not think of themselves as “black” but as a member of whatever their tribe of origin.

Black was used to separate the enslaved from those who had a right to call their lives their own. I wrote here that the designations “heterosexual” and “homosexual” (1886) are of relatively recent origin–in similar fashion, “black” and “white” were not always used as they are today, and “Whiteness” was not something automatically guaranteed to anyone with a pale skin. As waves of Irish, Polish, Armenian, Greeks and other groups arrived on America’s shores, they had to fight for acceptance. While not thought of literally as “black,” they, and numerous other ethnicities, were discriminated against by those looking down from a higher, whiter rung of the sociological ladder. Bigots today continue to manipulate language in order to divide and to create sources to foment fear of those who are different, and incite people to violent or discriminatory behavior.

I have recently seen hateful cartoons of the Obamas, directed at their blackness, and personally know folks who would rather follow any wild assertion or speculation to discredit the President rather than admit their antagonism stems from their own prejudice.

A friend recently mentioned that he believes a major problem racists have with Obama is not even that is black, but that his mother is white–an ugly thought probing into deeper and murkier layers of racism. A thought I even dislike writing down–but which I have to consider.

We’ve come a long way in this country in matters of race–but not nearly as far as we believe.

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