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Commentary: All groups are not equally meaningful

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, ​May 24, 2011 -  I am teaching an intensive three-week course called Inequality in Self and Society, and we recently grappled with a tension that I believe resonates with the Trump/Birther controversy.

All groups, while created equal, are not equally meaningful.

Take, for example, the Imams who were taken off a plane recently in Charlotte after the pilot refused to fly even though they had gone through multiple screenings.

I am pretty sure other groups on that plane did not have to endure that same scrutiny (e.g., older White males who fit the profile for serial killers, obese passengers who pay for an extra seat before being kicked off). Being Arab, bearded and dressed in traditional Muslim garb mattered, and it mattered in a more qualitatively meaningful way than other people types.

If you think, "but they are simply using information about terrorists" or something along those lines in defense, consider this: Even the fact that you are bringing up past examples to frame this current example proves my point. Some groupings matter more than others. And historically, we have a pattern of using certain groupings to shape laws and norms. 

We need not go back to slavery to see where this has happened around race. I read an intriguing piece about the Kentucky Derby that unearths how Black jockeys were systematically pushed out of the sport. In the class I mentioned, we watched the informative PBS series, "Race: The Power of an Illusion," which reminds us how many of our nation's decisions were deeply rooted in race.

The example in the series that consistently gets students thinking is the history of citizenship and race designations. The film chronicles the 1922 Supreme Court case of Ozawa v. United States, which declared Japanese ineligible for citizenship, because they are not White on the basis of scientific genealogy. United States v. Thind in 1923 declares Asian Indians ineligible for citizenship despite science by declaring that "White is what the common man knows" it to be. Students are often struck by the way in which race mattered to the extent that it became a moving target, shifting to make sure access was limited.

From seven years of using this film, I think what strikes students most is the contradiction. We are a nation that touts the dream of all being "created equal" and the ability to access the "American dream," yet our actions have at times made certain groups ineligible. Whether it's race and citizenship, nation of origin and land ownership, or gender and voting, our history offers many contradictions.

Groupings that mattered were not being left-handed or athletic. These groupings can shape our life experience, no doubt, but were not used as a basis for citizenship. This is not to say that those less socially relevant group memberships do not matter. It does mean, however, that some aspects of identity shape our experiences more than others. In that sense they matter more.

This "mattering more" should not be construed with inflated "group pride" or license to discriminate. Acknowledging and observing what goes on around us is not the same as endorsing it and perpetuating it. We have historically used race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation and the like to shape access and opportunities in our society. To call that pattern for what it is does not perpetuate it. In fact, I would argue that refusing to acknowledge it, when we've enacted this pattern for so long, is the problem.

Everything related to Obama's presidency is not about race. However, this longstanding question of him being a foreigner is too similar to the historical ways we have shaped the conversation around citizenship to ignore.

I would argue that it is not parallel to framing G.W. Bush as "riding Daddy's coat tails" or Clinton as a "womanizing pot-smoker." Those are caricatures or groupings of people types in ways that do not correlate with access to education, wealth and income. The lengths to which people went to deny the evidence that Obama was a citizen were steeped in our racial history of who could be a citizen and who is considered perpetual foreigners. To acknowledge that our racial history might have given more license for this "hunt" is not to damn members of the birther movement or Donald Trump. It is a simple analysis of the situation.

More recently, the framing in the media of Rev. Al Sharpton as Obama's go-to Black leader and the highly publicized lashing out by Professor Cornell West demonstrate racial politics. The coverage, intentionally or not, flattens rather than highlights issues of race. It pigeon holes Obama, tying him to one former Civil Rights leader and reifies the idea of Black as monolithic.

If we are so post-racial, we should be able to talk to Obama supporters and critics without assuming their position will be based solely on race. Yet our racial history of blocked access and forced integration might be rearing its ugly head making us feel guilty and rendering us unable to see beyond the grouping of race in politics.

In the case of the imams on the plane, the pilot's perceptions of race and religion played a role. Why is it so difficult for us to acknowledge that race plays a role in our actions?

1. We wish race did not factor into our decisions.

2 . We fear the label "racist."

Race does factor into our decisions. To fool ourselves to think we are somehow magically devoid of the notion of race is inaccurate at best. I would argue that the more we resist owning and exploring how it impacts our actions the further we will get from improving the situation.

Our fear of the label "racist" has paralyzed us from being able to have a conversation about race. Rather than it being a term to describe a person acting in accordance with our system of racial inequalilty, it has become the term to end all terms. There are times when it is worth calling a spade a spade, but most often the term is overused and fails to acknowledge institutional norms and values that are just as, if not more, implicated than an individual.

As we enter this 18-month election season (yes, it has begun), we should prepare ourselves for the reality that some of what comes up will have racial overtones. I propose that we expect it (given our nation's history) rather than be surprised by it, and hold ourselves accountable for discussing the issue.

Some of the content will not be racially tinged but will be racialized by the media. That tendency actually waters down the times when race is really at the forefront (kind of like the boy who cried wolf), so I propose that we hold ourselves accountable for discussing the issue. Notice that being accountable and engaging in discussion is the outcome regardless?

It won't be easy, and people on all sides of the issue would probably rather avoid it, but as my class is grappling to understand, race is integral to our history as a nation. And as Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun stated, "to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race."

Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. 

Kira Hudson Banks