What are Americans most obsessed with?

Xenophobia in the US: A Question of Race?

New York The other day an elderly black man spoke to me on the street. My first reflex was to ignore him. Then I noticed just in time that he was asking me for directions. I could help him find his goal - much more, my smartphone could help him.

Why was my first reflex to ignore the man? Because in Manhattan I am often approached by people who ask for “change”, that is, want change. Sometimes I give something, but most of the time I don't. Most of the time I'm annoyed. I have the feeling that I can't give something to every beggar, because there are a lot of them in New York, especially in my neighborhood near Times Square, where poverty and wealth are very close together. Because of this, I tend to ignore it without being particularly proud of it. But that's not the real issue.

The issue is that more men than women appeal to you, and much more black men than white men. There are more blacks than whites with money worries, without a job, maybe even without an apartment. This is how the reflex is imprinted: Black man speaks to you - he probably wants money. A bad reflex. Is that why I am a racist? It's a matter of definition.

Race, especially black or white skin color, still plays a major role in the US - more than 200 years after the constitution promised equal rights to all citizens, around 150 years after the liberation of slaves, around 50 years after the start of the civil rights movement. It's a kind of taboo topic, people don't like to talk about it openly, but at the same time it is discussed permanently, almost obsessively, in the media and the political public.

Goldman Sachs HR director Edith Cooper encourages her people to speak up about racial issues in the workplace. At the end of September she also reported on her personal experiences as a black career woman in a post on LinkedIn: “I am often asked 'which country are you from' (I grew up in Brooklyn). I was asked if I actually studied at Harvard (I did) and how I did it (I applied). At a meeting with customers, I was asked to bring the coffee (even though I chaired the meeting) and I was mistaken for the cloakroom attendant at my son's school. "

Cooper nevertheless made a career and thus fulfilled the dream of her parents, who, as she writes, came to New York from the southern states "for one reason only: to raise their children without the institutionalized racism under which they had lived". But New York isn't color blind either.


Does skin color no longer play a role in everyday life?

If you keep reading reports of unarmed black men being shot by the police, or looking at the drama of the statistics that blacks do poorly in almost everything from education to income and wealth to crime and prison sentences , then at first glance there is blatant racism. And the success of a presidential candidate who openly seeks to exploit racist prejudice complements this picture. This leads to the fallacy that all whites simply have to give up their prejudices and America would be saved. But the reality is more complicated, if not necessarily better because of that.

White Americans often feel that they are being treated unfairly when they are blamed for racism. I met an elderly man in Chicago who complained, “We have to keep saying 'Sorry'. Sorry for the slavery, sorry for the racism, sorry for the extermination of entire Indian tribes. ”The man has probably never harmed anyone of a different skin color, but he still feels the mountain of guilt and accusation that weighs on white Americans.

Fortunately, the subject of skin color no longer plays a role in everyday life. I'm friends with a black woman my age, we see each other at church every Sunday and we meet for lunch every few months because we both work in south Manhattan. We then talk about our jobs, our friends, our relationships, our hobbies, literature, and so on.

But none of us think about the fact that we have different skin colors. We usually take turns inviting each other to eat. She paid once and mentioned that she usually tips well. “Black women have a reputation for being stingy with tips,” she said. “Maybe that's because black women have less money on average than white men,” I replied. That was our only conversation about skin color in four years.

So why is America not letting go of the subject? Why are there so stark differences in the - at least average - living conditions of white and black Americans? And that although today most whites are no longer really racists.

On the one hand, it often plays a role that even people who consider themselves to be free of prejudice have stereotypes lodged in their subconscious. It is not for nothing that I mentioned myself as a bad example at the beginning. In addition, however, these stereotypes are fed by real differences. There are more black beggars than white ones, and violent crime among young blacks is indeed particularly high. Cops who shoot young black men rashly tend to do so out of fear, which is not an excuse but may be part of an explanation. The reality of America feeds the stereotypes, and the stereotypes help to perpetuate the ugly reality every generation, so that despite undeniable advances, the subject never goes away.


Odds for blacks do harm

This still negative spiral contributes to America becoming obsessed with the issue. Racial issues and slavery are among the most popular subjects in theaters and films, especially among liberal whites. Many problems are discussed in politics as racial issues, although it is sometimes questionable whether this is the best approach. In the state of Mississippi, a few years ago, rather late, the discussion arose whether it was okay for children to be beaten at school. The focus was not on the sense and nonsense of corporal punishment.

But the fact that black children are beaten on average more often than white children. The discussion was particularly absurd because black parents have fewer objections to this punishment than white parents, as the linked magazine "The Nation" reported. Because some black parents rely on a particularly strict upbringing for fear of their children slipping into criminality.

There is always confusion as to whether race problems are really race problems or whether they actually have other causes. During a discussion at Columbia University, I saw a left-wing white journalist and a black professor quarreling about whether certain social problems should be viewed better as social problems or more as racial problems. "No, there are also race problems," insisted the professor.

There are also black people like the conservative economist Thomas Sowell who rail against obsession with the topic because they see the danger of perpetuating the separation between black and white. Sowell is of the opinion, for example, that quotas for blacks at elite universities ultimately cause damage because students end up in the wrong place, are overwhelmed and are thrown off course. But these voices are in the minority and are often overlooked. The rule in public space is rather that blacks complain about racism and liberal whites eagerly agree in order not to belong to those who have to say "Sorry".

To be honest, I am sometimes suspicious of the obsession with which the subject of race is often discussed. I have heard a black historian lecture once. What was it about? From the history of slavery. Why don't white historians write about slavery and black historians about George Washington and the Founding Fathers of the United States? They probably do, in part, but is it a coincidence that the first black historian I meet specializes in slavery?

The whole discussion is poisoned for a long time, although there are of course positive exceptions. But all too often, on the one hand, every problem that shows any statistical differences is immediately discussed as a genuine racial problem. The fact that stereotypes are also fed by real differences is either ignored or too quickly accused of racism again. Blacks are not only more often in prison because too many whites are racists, but also because too many blacks are criminals. And even if all whites were suddenly color-blind, the broken social structures that contribute to crime would not change overnight.

Whites, on the other hand, are just as often too easy on themselves. Either they eagerly agree to the racism thesis in order to absolve themselves of it at the same time. Or they ignore the entire history of racism and slavery, find that blacks are to blame for their problems and even feel disadvantaged towards them. These people prefer to express themselves on social media rather than in public and end up voting for Donald Trump, which certainly does not help to solve the problems. Of course, there are also many level-headed Americans on all sides who recognize the full range of problems. But in an already highly polarized public, their voices penetrate far too little.

I don't want to presume that I know better than any American how to deal with the subject. Especially since the attentive observer should not miss the fact that we sometimes come across similar structures in Germany, just with different colors. I would like to close with a thoughtful quote from Edith Cooper: "The way to a solution seems unclear, but one thing is certain - if we are to really make progress we need to start an open discussion on the issue of race." The emphasis is on "open".

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