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Yousef Abukhdair Headshot

Racism's 21st Century Makeover

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I was summoned for jury duty this week. Normally, like most Americans, I would loathe the idea of putting my life on hold for a few days to do my civic duty. I also knew I was not likely to be selected for jury service as attorneys typically look for jurors who are more malleable and have few opinions about the justice system. I fit neither category. However, in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict I relished the opportunity to perhaps sit on a panel of citizens to give a defendant a legitimate trial among impartial peers.

Then it happened. Another buttress that impartiality in the justice system is a lie, a facade, an all out fiction. While sitting amongst the perspective jurors in the assembly room, I overhear a conversation at the table to my left. It was four women in their 50's or early 60's, three of whom looked to be white while the fourth seemed to be Asian-American. These women were discussing Paula Deen. One of the women referred to Mrs. Deen as "that poor woman," while another said she didn't understand what the big deal was. She said with a smirk, "It was just one little word," referring to Mrs. Deen's use of the N-word. They discussed how terrible it was that Mrs. Deen has lost so much money for something they seemed to believe was quite trivial (believe it or not, one of these women even mentioned that she was a retired school teacher). These women, for the life of them, didn't seem to believe that Mrs. Deen earned the public rebuke she has encountered.

If these women were asked if they had any racial bias or preconceived prejudice notions of race, they would likely say no. In fact, I would go so far as to say these women surely don't believe they are or ever have said or participated in anything racist in their lives. However, that does not make their opinion of Mrs. Deen's use of the N-word any less racist.

I was raised in an upper-middle-class suburb in Northern California. Calling it predominantly white would be like calling the Titanic a big boat. They were for the most part moral and ethical people, but that did not make them any less racist while stoically dropping racial slurs about black or brown people. It was just something they did around other people of similar culture and affluence. I guess I was regarded as a "good minority" -- they didn't have to worry about what they said around me because in their eyes I dressed like them, had the same hobbies, played football, etc. I was one of them, though things surely changed a bit after 9/11.

While in college I was privy to several of the same attitudes and heard many of the same slurs used without a second thought. I was in a fraternity that was so wealthy and white that our Parents Weekend looked like a Bill O'Reilly book signing. If something went missing in the fraternity, someone would always be quick to blame any of the African American football players who would come over to visit friends in the house (of course never to their faces). There was never any proof or even an attempt to prove they were thieves. Just a theft in the proximity of a black man was enough suspicion to presume his guilt. But none of those fraternity members would ever consider themselves racist either. Mind you these aren't necessarily bad people. Many of them have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, educators, and other respectable occupations, but they were just raised unaware of the definition of racism.

Contemporary America has given a face to racism. That face is usually only shown in archaic videos, KKK rallies, footage of old Hitler speeches, Neo-Nazi rallies, and other people that espouse their bombastic racial sentiments publicly. Perhaps that juxtaposition is the reason why it is so difficult for many Americans to consider Paula Deen's actions to be racist. Even the concept of racism is made to be seen anachronistic -- something from the past that has been resolved in the eyes of the public after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

With the reduction in the acceptance of overtly racist action, accompanied with the election of an African American president, and a handful of successful African Americans in business and entertainment (though Michelle Alexander suggests that's more to do with black exceptionalism), many Americans have argued that racism is dead or dying in America. I would argue that racism not only exists but has simply become less acceptable to discuss in public, though still quite prevalent in certain social circles. Consequently, the election of an African American president gives subconscious racism an excuse to thrive; so much so that many Americans refuse to believe that race had any factor in the death of Trayvon Martin and the jury's verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.

To believe racism is non-existent in the American justice system amongst other venues is a ludicrous omission of societal norms and an obtuse understanding of human nature. I could bore you with numbers that prove an inherent bias against minorities in the justice system but if you have not read them by now, they will have little effect on you (though you can just look at the racial statistics of those who were stopped by the NYPD with the use of the stop and frisk law and be dumbfounded).

If we cannot have an honest discussion about race in America, how can we ever expect to live amongst each other without suspicion? How can any defendant regardless of color ever really stand in front of a jury of their peers and expect impartiality? How can all victims and their families be guaranteed equality in justice?