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Richard Bogartz: Let’s all face up to truths as we join to confront racism

Retired Amherst principal Russ Vernon Jones is launching a community-wide dialog in Amherst, bringing people together to confront racism in Amherst. The idea is to start with a small group of 16 people of two hues from local Christian churches, share personal stories and examine the Biblical basis for action against racism. Next will come expansion to a broader coalition for learning how people experience race in Amherst.

Then the next stage will be to design a public campaign to involve as much of the rest of the community as possible.

I have unbounded enthusiasm for this project and applaud both Russ Jones for the undertaking and Debra Scherban for letting us know about it. The times call for these discussions. How appropriate it is for Amherst to rise to the occasion.

I try to imagine how I would lead or participate in such discussions. It seems like an overwhelming undertaking. Science, in the form of the Human Genome Project, has informed us that race does not exist. It is a fiction. So we have racism, a very real phenomenon, predicated on a fiction, race. The discussion gets even more problematic when we consider that along with racism we also have pride or shame in one’s racial identity even though race does not exist.

And of course many of the people feeling such pride or shame at first will not agree that there is no biological justification for supposing that humanity is divided into races.

I am convinced that trying to attack racism while at the same time reifying race can only result in failure. We will be validating the lie and so supporting the basis of the racism we want to destroy. It is building on a foundation of sand. If we don’t start with the truth, as best we know it, we will fail.

We will have to begin with the courage to face the truth and see what we can do with it. So what is the truth? Although race does not exist, the attitudes people have exist, even if based on falsity. There are cultural groupings of people based on the false assumption of race. There is a real history of events associated with the oppression of many darker hued people by many lighter hued people.

The cover story for this oppression has been race and the racist notions of superiority and inferiority, whereas the genuine story is one of racism as an economically motivated tactic that is about exploiting the darker hued people and persuading ignorant lighter hued people that this is the answer to their problems.

One has only to tap into the media of today to see racist politics playing to this notion at every level of government. Race is a divide-and-conquer tool for distracting the lighter hued from class, which is where the real action is.

And then there is the whole police thing. I am unaware of racist behavior by Amherst police. It would be good to hear what people of darker hues than my own have to say about it. I have certainly heard countless stories of racism on the part of Springfield police, so western Massachusetts is not immune. There is a circular causality that needs to be considered. Oppression and exploitation leads to last-hired, first-fired realities, which leads to poverty, thus to crime, thus to police expectations based on statistical realities, then to profiling, stops for Driving While Black, and more profound oppression.

Leading to justified resentment, lack of respect for the law. And around it goes.

Finally, the young need to be brought into the dialog. Without much help from their elders, the young seem to be finding their way out of the miasma of racism. To the young, skin color more and more seems to be as unimportant as eye color.

As it should be. We can and should learn from them.

Richard S. Bogartz is a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts.

Race is a divide-and-conquer tool for distracting the lighter hued from class, which is where the real action is.

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