Saturday, October 06, 2007

Hidden racism

Racism always has two faces, one exposed, and one hidden. As you can probably figure, while the exposed face is obviously dangerous, it's the hidden one that can trip you up more often.

These days, there's a very dangerous bit of racism going around involving the war on terror. It's one that has two parts. The first part is a question that a lot of people asked right after the attacks; the other one has become a right-wing belief.

"Why do they hate us?" folks asked, and a common response was that they hate us for our freedom.

When I first heard that, I winced. It was like, "okay, that's a feel good reason to give, one that might conceivably help bring the country together, but god damn, what a horrible oversimplification it is!"

And the second part, the talking point, is that "we're fighting an enemy unlike any other; they are willing to kill themselves, just to take a chance of killing some of us!"

Now, there's a hidden subtlety to these, and it's all wrapped up in the idea of "they". Why do "they" hate us? "They" are willing to commit suicide to kill us.

Who is "they"? How many "they" are there?

This is the place where hidden racism pops up. People think of Middle-Easterners as strange and different, and there are some huge differences. They have different culture, different customs, and while their majority religion shares some common roots with the majority religions in the United States, the similarities make the differences that much more jarring.

And the "they" stops being "that tiny percentage of people who become terrorists" to "Middle-Easterners". Oh, not all of them... just an unknown, but large, percentage.

Because, you know, they're different. And they live far away. And we know that there are some, so there could be others, and thus... well, if you know anything about racism, I'm sure you can fill in the rest.

But people, everywhere, want to live, love, build families, and work in peace. Give them something nice to build for themselves, and the overwhelming majority of them will quietly build that something nice for themselves. They won't develop the kind of hatred and the kind of intensity that it takes to be willing to die to attack America. Hell, if they don't see America as some evil country that tortures, disappears people, and invades countries based upon false claims, they'll take some serious risks to break up a threat against America, because that's what most people do, whatever their race, religion, or location.

Sure, there were a lot of people who we had reason to be afraid of; prior to the war in Iraq, estimates were that there were 20,000 people who were active parts of, or willing to work with, al Qaeda. Let's multiply that fivefold, to 100,000. Or, hell, let's just say "hundreds of thousands" of them are our enemies. The Middle East has hundreds of *millions* of people. Meaning that, as an order of magnitude, our enemies are around one tenth of one percent of the people in the Middle East.

Sure, we have dangerous enemies... but they are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the peaceful, loving, decent human beings who surround them. There are probably more than a thousand good folks for every bad guy out there.

But it becomes easy to ignore that, to let the invisible face of racism make us more afraid (and more angry or hateful) than we should be towards people who overwhelmingly want to live in peace with us.

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