The Use of Racial Prisms

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

The perception that progressives and the “cultural elite” view  “every public policy issue through a racial prism” has become a favorite whipping boy on this blog. Those raising this objection would prefer that race and ethnicity not be used as criteria for shaping or evaluating public policy.

I, too, am sometimes uncomfortable with the insistence that public policy be evaluated in racial terms. What I am also uncomfortable with is what seems a pretension by some that liberals and progressives have been the first to view policy and society through a “racial prism.”

In the Virginia in which I grew up, that “racial prism” was used to order all of society. Black people could not use the same public restrooms as white people did, nor drink out of the same water fountains. Blacks were not allowed to eat in many restaurants or stay in many hotels and motels. They had to ride on the back of the bus. They were prevented from buying homes in certain areas of town. On my daily trip on a school bus to my relatively large, brick elementary school, I passed the small, wooden, run down building that the Black children attended. Virginia law decreed that it was “unlawful for any white person in this state to marry any save a white person….”  (That was the law until 1967, not that long ago, when the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.) Only 33 years later, my daughter did not have to worry about running afoul of it when she married a man whose parents had been born in China.)

Society was strictly ordered around race. Black people went to Black doctors; they went to Black churches; they were buried in Black cemeteries or sections of public cemeteries set aside for Blacks.

And they were subjected to violence because of their race. Black people were lynched simply because they were Black. They were beaten for the same reason; Bull Connor set the police dogs on them in Alabama because they were Black. Their churches were burned, not because of their religious teachings, but because the congregations were Black.

I remember all this, so I am certain there are thousands of Black folks in Virginia who lived through it and also remember it. And there are thousands other Black people who are young enough not to have personally experienced it, but have heard the stories from their parents and grandparents.

And this is not ancient history. Race is still being used, in a negative way, to shape public policy and actions. Enough Black people have been stopped and searched by the police on flimsy pretenses that the “offense” of “driving while black” has become a widely recognized phrase that describes something all Black people are keenly aware of. (No one has ever talked about being stopped for “driving while white.”) Does anyone believe that a policeman would have pinned a handcuffed  George Floyd to the ground with a knee on the back of his neck until he died if Floyd had been white?

The Current Occupant of the White House once asked why we had to keep bringing in immigrants from “shithole” countries such as Haiti and countries from Africa rather than from places like Norway. He once publicly called for the reinstatement of the death penalty after five Black and Latino men were accused of raping a jogger in Central Park. As recently as last year, he refused to apologize, although the men had served years in prison for a crime for which they were wrongfully convicted. Now, he has pardoned four white former U.S. contractors who were convicted of massacring 17 civilian Iraqis, including two children, in a pubic square in Baghdad. The use of a “racial prism” at the highest level could not be plainer.

People from Spanish-speaking countries have also been subjected to this “racial prism” through a long history of discrimination. For example, recently, two U.S.-born Latino women were detained by a Border Patrol agent for simply speaking Spanish in a convenience store. And here is how Hal Turner, a New Jersey talk show host, described Hispanics, “These filthy, disease-ridden, two-legged bags of human debris are too stupid to believe. Just think, America, if we bring enough of them here, they can do for America exactly what they did for Mexico! Turn our whole country into a crime-ridden, drug-infested slum.”

The current emphasis on race and ethnicity is not new. In fact, it could be seen as a reaction to the long ugly emphasis on race and ethnicity by white leaders in Virginia and the country that was the norm. Hopefully, there will soon come a time when we will not notice, nor care, how many Black, brown, Asian, or white people there are on a redistricting commission or the President’s Cabinet. I caught a glimpse of that future several years ago when I observed a large black man, who happened to be the Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, addressing a committee of the Virginia General Assembly. I hope I live to see it come to fruition.