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The Spectrum: Learning who we are in today's America

Nathan Baker • Nov 24, 2018 at 6:17 PM

Editor’s note: Recent events regarding minority groups in American culture, politics and law enforcement prompted the Johnson City Press to take a deeper look at ethnic, religious and gender/sexual identities in the Johnson City area. Today, we begin a three-day series of articles regarding that spectrum of marginalized populations.

America today is searching for its cultural identity.

After far too long living under institutionalized oppression, people in traditionally marginalized groups are calling for recognition, equal treatment and access to the rights ingrained in the country’s founding documents.

In the last decade, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the rights of same-sex couples to marry, nationwide movements have put a spotlight on the apparent racial bias perpetuated in the justice system and pointed out the prevalence of rape culture and gender discrimination. This November, a record number of women won seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and women of color won the first seats in their states in Congress and in governors’ mansions.

Terms like “microaggressions,” “privilege” and “mainstreaming” have entered the national dialogue, allowing people to openly discuss discrimination and how it affects their lives.

But amid the rapid cultural change, some members of the power-holding groups have been reluctant to acknowledge the disparate treatment of others, afraid that if they admit to implicit bias in the system, they will be labeled racist, sexist or intolerant.

In 2011, academic Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” to describe the seemingly instinctive reactions some people have when confronted with racism and how racist institutions have benefited them.

“White fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves,” she wrote. “These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”

Sociologists believe white fragility and associated mental defenses allowing people to avoid the stress of acknowledging the discrimination of marginalized religious, racial and sexual minority groups have given rise to a counter social movement.

Many, particularly in rural areas that are predominantly white, reported in the last presidential elections that they felt ignored. The problems of poverty, unemployment and drug addiction are prevalent in their communities, and, while the country focused on the plights of minorities, they felt left out.

Sensing the shifting tide of political discourse, some politicians began promoting populist ideas addressing those concerns. In 2016, the country elected President Donald Trump, who in his inauguration speech, promised to return power to the “forgotten” Americans.

As the two sides have ramped up the pressure, the rhetoric has grown more extreme. In the weeks before the midterm elections, politicians seeking to maintain their power energized their bases by portraying a caravan of people from Central America hoping to seek asylum in the United States as an existential threat to the country. Trump deployed troops to the border shortly before Election Day, but has not made much mention of the migrants in weeks.

Some reactions to the clashing cultural movements have been extreme and tragic — the murders of nine black worshipers in an historic Charleston church in 2015 by an avowed white supremacist, the slayings of 49 and wounding of 53 others in a gay Orlando nightclub in 2016 and the killing of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue this year by a man who told police he wanted to “kill all Jews.”

Also preying on these fears and impulses, white supremacist and other hate groups have gained strength over the last several years and hate crimes, which were trending downward over the last decade, have risen the last three years, according to FBI statistics.

In Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, a man attending a white nationalist rally that drew thousands was accused of hitting a killing a counterprotestor with his car. His murder trial begins Monday.

Researchers who study human interactions and race believe the best way to avoid the deepening of the country’s social cleft is to talk.

Rachel Godsil, co-founder and director of research at the Perception Institute, was an author of a paper this year that encouraged interracial contact to help dispel stereotypes and biases and reduce racial anxiety.

The idea is, learning about the people who make up different communities helps people who have had limited with them better understand their issues.

With this series talking with people in our area who belong to minority and marginalized communities, we hope to help foster that understanding.

Over the next three days, we will publish the stories of several people and let them talk about their concerns, hopes and experiences. We hope everyone will read the series with an open mind and will come away with some new ideas about our overall community.

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