Mary Shaw

Are We As Enlightened As We Think We Are About Race?

February is Black History Month in the U.S. It gives us an extra reason to ponder the journey of African-Americans from the early days of slavery, through Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, an on through the present day.

As we do so, most of us are thankful that our society has evolved to where African Americans are no longer bought and sold, treated not like people but rather as property, without reward, without a voice, and virtually without any rights at all.

Yes, we have evolved -- somewhat. African-Americans are free. Like most Americans, they live their lives, go to school, have careers, have families. They are our teachers, our doctors, our stockbrokers, our Secretary of State.

But, even so, is our society really as enlightened today as we might like to believe? Have we really learned enough from the horrible mistake of slavery?

Perhaps not so much after all.

The Declaration of Independence proclaims that all persons are created equal. But, while we no longer practice slavery in this country, are people of color truly equal in our society?

While African-Americans are certainly much better off than they were in centuries past, the socio-economic disparity between the races remains pronounced in the U.S. today.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2005 median income for white households was $48,554, while that of black households was only $30,858.

The Bureau also reports that in 2001, 22.7 percent of blacks lived below the poverty level, while only 7.8 percent of non-Hispanic whites lived below the poverty level.

And racism and race-based discrimination, while not politically correct in this day and age, are still rampant. People -- especially white people -- are just not comfortable talking about it.

Witness Hurricane Katrina. We didn't see very many white people trapped inside that stadium.

On a wider scale, race-based inequity is perhaps most apparent in the criminal justice system, where the color of the defendant's skin and the victim's skin play a significant role in determining who receives the death penalty in the U.S.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), people of color have accounted for a disproportionate 43 percent of all executions since 1976, and currently account for 55 percent of inmates currently awaiting execution. While white victims account for approximately one-half of all murder victims, 80 percent of all death penalty cases involve white victims. Furthermore, according to the ACLU, "as of October 2002, 12 people have been executed where the defendant was white and the murder victim black, compared with 178 black defendants executed for murders with white victims."

Sometimes when I quote these statistics, the listener (usually white) will speculate that perhaps black people proportionally commit more murders than white people, and therefore are more likely to end up on death row. While this theory is racist by its very nature, and not based on facts, we can easily disprove it with actual numbers. A 1997 study of death sentences in Pennsylvania from 1983 through 1993 showed that a black defendant was 38 percent more likely to receive a death sentence than a white defendant accused of a similar crime. Yet Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, like several other governors across the nation, continues to sign death warrants and propagate this racially biased system.

None of this will change until our society evolves a whole lot further. None of this will change until WE change. All of us.

None of this will change until each of us -- white, black, brown, yellow, purple, or polka-dot -- can look in the mirror and look at each other and see humanity, not color.

None of this will change until, to paraphrase the great and wise Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., all people are judged not for the color of their skin but the content of their character.

Christmas Has Not Been Stolen

It's that time of the year again. The holiday shopping season is in full swing. The stores and city streets are decked out in all their holiday splendor -- tinseled trees, angels, reindeer, Santa.

And, despite these abundant public Christmas displays, the right-wing pundits have begun their annual campaign to convince the faithful that "the liberals", led by the ACLU, have waged a "war on Christmas".

Maybe I'm missing something, but, if there really is a war on Christmas, a quick trip to the local shopping mall should convince any skeptic that Christmas has surely won that battle. And I have yet to see throngs of ACLU members picketing the decorated stores. It looks to me as though the Christmas spirit is alive and thriving, as gaudily obvious as ever.

Furthermore, those who think that the evil, godless liberals are out to steal Christmas from them might find it interesting to look at the history of our Christmas traditions. Like many Christian holidays, numerous Christmas customs and symbols have their roots in pagan traditions. Most historians do not believe that Jesus was born on December 25, and there were no pine trees in the desert around Bethlehem. These elements were borrowed from the pagan winter holidays of Saturnalia and Yule. So, ironically enough, the early Christians were the ones who originally stole the holiday. But that's fine, in my opinion. There should be enough holiday spirit for everyone to share.

I admit there are some people who do make a fuss over public displays of religion. They are generally the humorless, militant atheist types who could use a lesson in tolerance (and a big, strong cup of eggnog). Here in the United States of America, we have freedom of religion. While that also includes the right for nonbelievers to practice no religion, they are doing themselves a disservice by trying to interfere with other people's right to observe Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, or any other holiday of their choice, religious or otherwise. But the right-wing zealots need to realize that these types are a very small minority. The ACLU will go to bat when there are complaints about blatant sectarian displays on tax-funded property. But these are very specific incidents. They pose no threat to Santa at the mall.

That said, I have to question the motives of those pundits who, year after year, whine about this imaginary war on Christmas. Are they really so insecure in their piety that they need to blatantly splash their iconry in every public square?

And didn't Jesus himself preach that we should practice our religion in private and secretly, and not in public? According to Matthew 6:5-6, "when thou pray, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy father which is in secret, and thy father which seeth in secret shall reward thee." I could find nothing in the gospels advocating giant displays of reindeer and mistletoe.

But I will enjoy those displays, even though I am not a Christian. After all, we live in a free country, and it is the multi-cultural nature of our melting-pot society that makes this nation so special.

Happy holidays to all.

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