The Herald Bulletin

March 18, 2014

Primus Mootry: The color conundrum: race, ethnicity and diversity

The Herald Bulletin

---- — Webster's dictionary defines conundrum as "an intricate and difficult problem." That fairly well describes our national preoccupation with persistent problems of race, its companion, racism, as well as our understanding of two related terms, ethnicity and diversity. If our understanding of these terms is inadequate, then it is impossible to meaningfully discuss them.

First, according to science, the concept of race is a complete fiction. For the most part, when we speak of "race" what we are really talking about are characteristics like skin and eye color, hair texture, and facial features common to distinct groups of people: white, black, brown, yellow, and red (Native Americans). These outer characteristics account for less than 0.1 percent of the differences among the groups.

In short, big-brained human beings constitute only one race, or species: homo sapiens sapiens (the wise ones). The difficulty here is that people conflate "race" with ethnicity. The are different. Ethnicity is about your DNA and ancestral culture. In this, it suggests that no group is superior to any other. We cry the same. We rejoice the same. We bleed the same.

I suggest the notion of "race" and racism are fairly modern (15th inventions 15th century to the present). The perversely understandable, yet fiendish purpose was about economics. It justified the superiority of one group over another, the consequent annihilation of native people of color around the world, the enslavement of millions of African Americans, and vast territorial acquisition and conquest.

As to ethnicity, a respected liberal journal of sociology, Sociology Lens, reports: "In the U.S., whites are the dominant ethno-racial group, however, this group has been ignored in the race and ethnicity literature." From what I can tell, that is true. As ethnic groups, and in varying relatively small percentages, America's whites are of Russian, German, British, Polish, Scottish, French, or a dozen or more other ethnicities.

Yet, according to 2010 and prior U.S. Census records, 97 percent report that they are simply "white." On the other hand, America's citizens of color are identified either as hyphenated minorities or by some other name that identifies their ethnicity, e.g., Hispanic. Again, according to that Sociology Lens publication mentioned earlier, "white Americans have developed an ethno-racial identity that acts as a constant lifeline but remains hidden from their [and everyone else's!] view."

The publication also says "by not having to live behind a 'veil' of differentness ..., whites do not understand how the consequences of this identity benefit them and harm others. ... In fact, the conflict over unequal resource distribution contributes to constant antagonism between whites and non-whites in the United States." As I said, it's about economics — money.

Is that confusing enough for you? My own interpretation is that it means that there are many hidden structural barriers to so-called minority access to ownership, control, and wealth (power). These thick barriers are so confusing and insidious that even the most well-meaning white folk innocently misinterpret their existence. Meanwhile, the confusion keeps the barriers in place, and makes meaningful conversation and understanding of the issues next to impossible.

This brings me to the issue of diversity. Far too often, folk on all sides have interpreted "diversity" as code for "tolerance." Well, if I'm a human being, I don't need to be "tolerated." I tolerate it if my dogs have an accident on the carpet, but not too long. Cultural pluralism? Don't we already have that? Integration? I think we have that, too. Are we now a post-racial society? What about the "race card?" And on and on.

At the end of the day, yes, it is about ownership, control, and a chance at a decent living, including the correction of "racial" imbalances in all workforce areas. But I am reminded of one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous statements ... something about judging people, not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. In the confusion, I think what many miss about this idea is that it applies to every American, male or female, and to every ethnic group.

It's a thing called merit. It's not just based on test scores or college degrees, but also passion, dedication, innate ability, and the drive to get things done, too. If we reward merit (as we so often falsely claim to do) the color conundrum and all the confusions associated with it will disappear.

Have a nice day.

Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays in The Herald Bulletin.