The setting was perfect: Our nation’s first black president took his second oath of office on the same day we choose to celebrate the life and legacy of one of our nation’s most important civil rights activists. In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama appropriately referenced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for individual freedoms from almost 50 years earlier. Some would say that Obama’s rise to the presidency of the most powerful nation on Earth is the embodiment of Dr. King’s dream — that finally, racism has been eradicated and we can all come together as one human race for the first time in our existence.
Of course this is not entirely the case. Sure, the president is a black man. Yes, everyone is equal before the law. However, it is undeniable that the government is generally dominated by older white men. While the African-American population of the U.S. is around 13 percent, approximately 46 percent of the prison population is African-American and the rate of poverty is the highest for black people at about 27 percent. It is clear that there is still a race problem in the United States.
There are several reasons race continues to be an issue. Some people legitimately believe that having a pale complexion is superior to having a dark complexion. However, these people are in the minority today. More commonly, a person’s lack of everyday experience with other races contributes to a feeling of discomfort when interacting with them. This, more than a satirical news show or the N-word, is the primary reason for most of the racial tension we experience both here at Emory and in the U.S. in general. People have a natural tendency to associate with other people who are similar to them. This is why we have many different clubs on campus, so that people of similar interests might congregate and share those interests with one another. This easily translates to the question of race: If I have spent all my life surrounded by white people, I will tend to associate with other white people in a new setting because of my unfamiliarity with people of other races. I personally remember being stricken by this phenomenon when I was six years old. My family had just moved from a small-town in Pennsylvania to Little Rock, Arkansas, and suddenly everything was different: the climate, the geography and yes, even the people. For the first time there were black kids in my class, on my baseball team and in my neighborhood. Being so young, I didn’t think, “These are black people,” but I do remember thinking something like, “Some of these people look different from what I’m used to.”
Fortunately (with the help of my parents) it did not take long for me to get used to the fact that not everyone in the world has a pale complexion. In fact, I did not become explicitly conscious of the fact that most of the students in my classes were black until I reached high school. However, not many people have the benefit of growing up in a place like Little Rock, Arkansas. Upon coming to Emory I was shocked by the number of my peers who came from schools and towns with very small or nonexistent non-white populations.
This lack of experience more than anything will negatively impact a person’s view of other races. If my only perceptions of black people are the local news reporting on this week’s crime and the depictions of gangster rappers in music videos and songs, this will leave me with a very narrow perspective on black society and culture. While I may know that I have to treat all people equally—and while I may truly believe so—my tainted impression of one minority group will always inform my actions and unconscious thoughts. I may call the MARTA “sketchy” or I may avoid going to a certain club downtown because its patrons have different skin tones than I do.
While I cannot be held responsible for how I was brought up or where I come from, I am responsible for my actions today. It ultimately comes down to the individual to recognize his or her faults and address them, particularly at an institution of higher education which prides itself on offering a diverse community. Granted, this is not to say that all students who come from monochromatic upbringings are racists. The problem is simply one of experience, and this is something that individuals, not a black president, can change.
William Hupp is a College sophomore from Little Rock, Ark.