During our class this Thursday we briefly touched on the impact of both laws and public opinion on human behavior with particular concern to attitudes about racial issues. In Rebecca Kook’s (1998) article The Shifting Status of African Americans in the American Collective Identity, she traces the development of the African-American identity in America through landmark events in our history driven almost entirely by public opinion. As her article makes painfully obvious, most positive progress, unfortunately, has only come in the past 50-60 years. The preceding decades were marred with a series of terrible injustices that were condoned and perpetuated by an American society that was intolerant, ignorant, apathetic and for the most part overtly racist.
In fact, Kook’s article, unlike many others on the subject of the struggle for true equality in America, spends a great deal of time discrediting events in history that we were taught as children to be monumental and positive. For example, growing up I never thought much about the oppression of African Americans in the post slavery era. Like most white children (and as I think we’re finding out most white people in general), I assumed that after the slaves were freed they were simply treated as equals. That everything was ok. I think it goes without saying at this point that this was not and still is not the case. Kook illustrates this point by describing the continued injustices that prevailed during the Jim Crow years. She borrows a passage from Karst (1989) to punctuate her point, “Racial segregation not only stigmatizes its victims; it also excludes them from full participation as members of society, treating them as members of a subordinate caste…Denial of respect not only inhibits the integration of the group’s members into the larger society but also undermines the value of belonging to the group (p. 323).” The inequities in loan, employment, and education opportunities we discussed alone were certainly enough to start an economic gap between whites and African Americans that may never close.
But what we seldom discuss in class and is not really discussed in the articles is that race by itself is an issue without social inequality. Let’s say everything is solved economically. Let’s say tomorrow we all have the same amount of money, the same educational opportunities and so forth. In other words, everything is equal except for race. The problem still exists that it is so ingrained in our society that being black is bad. That it is not desirable to be a part of the black group. How can a group expect to better itself collectively when what they truly want is to dissociate from their group as much as possible. Still, to me at least, the most interesting idea that Kook expresses in her article was how powerful public opinion was in shaping our government’s policies, even concerning the rights of other human beings. In other words, the government made no effort to correct the injustices that were going on in our country until people, namely white people (i.e. those in the dominant group), made it clear that they did not want them to continue. Even our government was content with maintaining the immoral status quo as long as nobody in the dominant group was upset by it. In addition, she seemed to imply that many of the long overdue civil liberties finally granted to African Americans and other minority groups in the United States were granted not because of the question of the immorality of denying those rights, but rather because it was politically advantageous for politicians to grant those rights or at least appear to want to at the time they did. They were never forced into making these changes, they merely conceded to doing so. They threw the collective dogs a bone because their barking became too loud to ignore. For me that puts a damper on a lot of the so called progress we’ve made, because it seems like these types of injustices and methods of oppression, however subtle, should have been corrected long before they were out of a moral concern rather than political convenience. It has been a little over a decade since Rebecca Kook wrote this article, and to be honest I would not have thought twice if the publication date said 2011 which is nothing short of embarrassing.