It’s a luxury to sit from a perch of prosperity and privilege and then look down upon others, deeming what is right or wrong as viewed from the lens of willful ignorance or convenient denial. But that’s exactly what Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin did when she attacked President Barack Obama for his unveiling of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative last week—a program that aims to broaden opportunities for at-risk African-American and Latino youths.
Rubin called the effort discriminatory, then charged that the program—which is largely funded by donations and private investments—was racist, questioning the constitutionality of a measure that has little to do with taxpayer dollars. And she claimed, strangely, that My Brother’s Keeper was somehow like Arizona’s recently vetoed and deceitfully titled “Religious Freedom” bill, which would have codified discrimination of gays and lesbians. It’s a false equivalency.
Arizona’s law sought to oppress, humiliate and harm the gay and lesbian community by creating de jure discrimination. By linking the two, Rubin conflates two very different issues and ignores the historic oppression of people of color—treating racism as if it were a zero-sum game. Rubin acts as if a program that benefits a disadvantaged group somehow takes something from those who don’t live under the burden of cultural compromise.
Many of us can’t afford to operate as if systemic racism does not exist and our country’s track record on race does not have a legacy that distorts society today. If you are a cancer patient who proclaims, “I do not have cancer,” it does not reduce the potency of your malignant cells. Your declaration of wholeness will not save you. The disease will harm you all the same.
Racism remains a cancer in the United States of America. Left untreated, it eats at the souls of us all. And we cannot stand up and proclaim that we are the country of rebirth and reinvention, of hard work, equality and dreams, if all those beloved things come with a fine print written in inequality.
Rubin writes, “The problem with hyping gender and racial differences is not simply the increased resentment and divisiveness it creates, but also that it uses victimhood as a political weapon.” But acknowledging someone’s pain and the unfairness at the root of it doesn’t make anyone a victim. Racism does.
As President Obama said, “Groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique ways … require unique solutions.” He points out that in our diverse America, some groups have “seen fewer opportunities that have spanned generations.” While we all want to see progress, inclusiveness requires us to provide opportunities for those who have been excluded because of historical—and current—structural barriers to equality.
I wish we lived in a world where My Brother’s Keeper wasn’t necessary. In fact, I have dedicated much of my life to working toward the day when it won’t be. But as long as we live in a society where men of color are disproportionately arrested, prosecuted and left to rot in our penal system; as long as we live in a society where the unemployment rate for black men is nearly twice that of whites; as long as black and brown children have to navigate underresourced schools that treat them as future criminals first and students second, then what our president did last Thursday is needed—not just for our youths of color but, ultimately, for the nation.
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