OCCASIONALLY, I make the mistake of believing that this country will one day reach some kind of sane equilibrium with respect to racial issues. But every time I make that tiny error, some person or organization does or says something so monumentally at odds with any hopes for a healthy society that my ever-slim optimism disappears entirely. Rarely, however, does something happen that is quite as overboard as this.
By now, you surely have heard about Benjamin Nathaniel Smith. Starting last Friday, a person now thought to be Smith began a bloody shooting spree across Illinois and Indiana, ending with his suicide during a high-speed chase in Salem, Ill. He shot nine people. He killed two--former Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong and Illinois University graduate student Won-Joon Yoon. All of the victims were minorities: Blacks, Asians, and Jews fell to Smith's gunfire before he finally turned it on himself. Smith, who was described as a white supremacist, left no questions as to the motive for his crimes, but no indication of the reason.
Sickening as the crimes were, however, my failing optimism might have recuperated. We might move forward from this, I thought. It might incite us to open a better dialogue on race, to try and eliminate those limited influences that had brought Smith to this pass of events. But then I saw an unambiguous sign that the basic cause of all the present difficulties about race had leeched into this case as well.
The sign was that Matt Hale, head of the church to which Smith belonged, described him to CNN as a "pleasant person who believes in his people, the white people."
Perhaps you don't see anything wrong with that. After all, we have a society that has built itself around ethnic pride. If a black person can believe in black people, why can't a white person believe in white people? What makes this division so wrong?
I admit that the preceding argument encouraging white people to believe in their race follows very good logic. It makes no sense to say one race can have pride in itself and another cannot. The conclusion that "white pride" should be tolerated is nonetheless unsound, because no race or religion should be looking for ethnic pride.
This was not always the case. During the Civil Rights Movement, it was vital that black pride be propagated, because most white people (in the south at least) felt that being black was a degradation. As long as black people had that environment around them, it would be very difficult to muster the resistance needed to throw off the yoke of Jim Crow oppression.
Black pride was the antidote to this situation. And it did the trick. A person's pride in her black skin negated the advantage held by those ignorant people who thought it was something to be ashamed of.
Beyond simple pride, however, was a racial unity: believing in black people, in their ability to overcome the obstacles facing them. In the hostile states of the south, such racial unity was also helpful, promoting the us-versus-them mentality often necessary when one is surrounded by enemies. When in doubt, those who aren't like you are the enemy, and those who are like you are your friends.
But this is only useful to a point. The problems start occurring when the people who used to be your enemies lose that status. Viewing your friends as enemies does no good, and pursuing stances based on this view reinforces the unifying tendency in your "enemy." In a way, a false assumption of group enmity creates a new enemy.
In America, it has created an insidious one. The reinforcing necessary to the Civil Rights Movement has to a large degree outlived its usefulness by partially (but by no means entirely) motivating a swing towards a belief in "white people."
But this is all a fallacy. If the racial problems of this country are to be solved, we have to let that vision go. There are no black people, any more than there are white people or purple people. All we have are people. Classifying by race is an easy task to achieve, but pointless for all that. The hope for racial unity lies in our realizing that all those divisions are meaningless.
That can't be achieved as long as we impose barriers on ourselves, as long as we identify ourselves by the places our great-great-grandfathers lived. Nationalistically celebrating our forgotten countries accomplishes nothing here except to divide people further.
We can't completely let go of pride in our heritage (or shame, if needed). Those things serve to remind us of the places we came from, and the failures and successes of the past. But we do not need them to the extent that they exist now in America. This is a new country, and still a young one. We can abandon the nationalism of the past and start anew.
Then again, I am an optimist.
(Sparky Clarkson is the Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily.)