Tuesday, June 10, 2014

How Modern Racism Works

I once spent a week in a Manhattan office as a sort of test drive for a possible new career. The staff was friendly and competent, the work was interesting, and the opportunities were sky high. I liked the company well enough and they liked me. They liked me quite a bit. I was exactly what they were looking for. I had met the founder/CEO of this top notch firm in church. We were both serving in leadership roles and had worked together in differing roles there. He liked how I went about things and asked if I would consider a career change that would include coming to work for him. It looked like a great opportunity.

The moment I stepped off the elevator I saw that this was not like any company I was used to. Everyone was Mormon. Not just Mormon, but graduates of BYU. It is not normal to find such a place on the East Coast where Latter-Day Saints are about as common as Panda Bears. At all my previous jobs I was forced to spend an abnormal proportion of my conversational time explaining why I wasn’t drinking like everyone else, why I was wearing an extra layer under my clothes, or why I never dropped the F-bomb like everyone else. I found this a bit frustrating as I would have rather spent my time talking about literature, movies, or maybe football. Rarely did I get a chance as my Mormonism trumped my other interests, or at least trumped anything else that may have been interesting about me. None of that would happen here. If I took this job those days would be over. I was intrigued.

“I like hiring Mormons. I understand them, they understand me, and we can have a work environment more in line with my values,” The boss told me. “I can start off at a level of trust with a new employee that I wouldn’t have otherwise and in this business there has to be trust.” I don’t think this employer was completely against working with non-Mormons, I know that nearly none of his clients were LDS, but he knew what he was looking for, knew where to find it, and he just did what he knew. He knew Mormons.
In the end I didn’t take the job. We just couldn’t get the numbers to work. That was years ago and they are still going strong. I don’t know everyone there but I can pretty much guess a thing or two about whomever it was that took the job that I did not. I’m pretty sure they were Mormon, went to BYU, and were extremely capable. I think about them, and my experience there, quite often. Strangely enough I think about it when I read in the paper about affirmative action, racial profiling, and income inequality. I thought about it during the Treyvon Martin trial, the Cliven Bundy showdown, and now during the Donald sterling drama. In all these cases there is so much talk about racism, or false accusations of racism, or reverse racism. Everyone has an opinion, everyone knows what should be done, and everyone, no matter what side they take, is upset.
So many are upset in part because we, the collective we, do not really understand how racism works. We think racism is, or happens when, we hate someone who is different. We think it is when we act out on this hatred of another in some way. While this may be one way racism works, it is very much not THE way racism works. The truth is that today, and in years past, for the most part racism works just like that office in Manhattan.

Racism happens when we simply show a preference for our own.

Preference for our own is a precarious thing. It makes sense. It’s easy. It’s also very exclusive and insular. Not only is it those things but it is also the justification most all overtly racist policies or groups have used to justify blatant discrimination. Most of those who supported Jim Crow laws did not claim to hate black people, they simply wanted to “protect” their own. Real estate agents and neighborhood alliances didn’t say black people were horrible, they simply wanted to make sure white people could live amongst their own. Labor unions, employers, and colleges never had to say they hated minorities; they only had to say that they had a level of trust in the abilities of their own.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily calling that office full of Mormons racist. Nor am I calling the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints racist. But I will say that all the people in that office were white. There were also no Jews. There were plenty of women and during that week I never heard one person say anything negative about any group previously mentioned. But the level of niceness, affection, or broad respect for humanity possessed by those who worked there didn’t, and doesn’t matter to any black people; because they aren’t there. Unless something changes, they never will be either.

That is the problem with a racist past never being addressed by the “non-racist” present.
The group we belong to now, and what that group has or does, is a direct result of what the members of our group did before. So, if that office would like to stay Mormon forever, so be it. Who cares right? It is one company, one office, what’s the big deal? In the grand scheme of things there really aren’t that many Mormons, especially in New York, so why even bring it up? I bring it up because this office is how modern racism works. That office is Mormon not because the people there hate anyone; they simply have a set way of doing things. The same could be said for Ford, Bain Capital, Tiffany & Co., the United States Senate, NBC, CBS, ABC, Morgan Stanley, Stanford, any local police department, the carpenters union, and on and on and on. Wall street firms don’t have to hate black people, they only have to really like Wharton graduates. Wharton doesn’t have to hate black people, it only has to really like legacies. Legacies don’t have to hate anyone, they only have to really want their own children to get into a great school. It goes on and on, spirals down, down, down.

The only way things will ever change is if someone intentionally changes it. It really isn’t enough to simply not be racist. Not hating someone is not the same as giving them a chance. Really, what it will take, and I call out that Mormon office because my own personal bias tells me that Mormons, my people, should be great at this, is to think of someone other than themselves. Look at someone new and give them a chance. Do the uncomfortable thing. 
Open up and let someone new in. Realize that if people are people, then “strangers” deserve the same sort of favoritism we give the familiar.

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