Tragedies and calamities tend to bring out the very best in humanity and, unfortunately, the very worst.
On the positive side of the ledger, when people are viewed as individuals, we humans recognize the commonality of life and suffering. When the explosions rocked the crowd near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, rather than run away from the blasts (a very understandable inclination), some people ran towards them. Not concerned with their own health and safety, they went to aid the victims.
In almost every case, I bet the distinctions we usually see did not exist. People going to aid the victims didn't see or care about race, ethnicity, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation. I am betting that not one of these first responders stepped over someone who they thought might be more liberal or conservative than they are and Christians didn't ignore a victim if they thought they were Jewish or an atheist.
What these rescuers found were people in need and they provided what care and comfort they could.
It plays out this same way in scores of other tragedies. When the suffering is real and you meet this suffering face-to-face -- whether you're on the scene or thousands of miles away -- you reach out to strangers. You do whatever you can to try to minimize the pain and agony the victims suffer from. (I should note that the victims aren't always human either. There are many examples of people placing themselves in harm's way to rescue or comfort domestic and even wild animals.)
But for all these positives, there is a dark side as well. When others are viewed not as individuals, but as a faceless group or category, then the distinctions of human life raise their ugly heads.
Over the last three days, columnist David Sirota courageously has written about the big elephant in the room of American society: racism and ethnic bias. He has taken a lot of heat from writing about the deep-seated racism that permeates the US and how it relates to the national reaction to the explosions at the Boston Marathon. (Go here to see one snippet I featured previously.)
He laid the cupboards bare in a column yesterday.
For a country that so often purports to be color blind, that insists too many people of color are overly obsessed with race, and that claims to live up to Dr. King’s dream of not judging people “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” the last two days have revealed a much uglier reality. They have revealed that — “doth protest too much” claims to the contrary — America is anything but color blind, that too many white folk are the ones obsessed with race, and that Dr. King’s dream is still just that: a distant dream. And that’s not just a general truism that is irrelevant to this moment of national emergency — it is, on the contrary, a very specific point that must be made, right now, precisely because of that national emergency.
Three seemingly separate events tell this story in all its hideous detail. First came the blatant ethnic/religious profiling of an Arab student injured at the Boston Marathon bombing. In that deplorable episode, he was immediately targeted as a suspect because — like thousands of others — he was running away from the blast, but unlike those others, he happened also to be Saudi. In that case, “probable cause” seemed to be a reflexive judgment exclusively about the color of his skin, not the content of his character — and, as with the Oklahoma City bombing before it, that inaccurate and unsubstantiated judgment was then unceremoniously blared all over the world, quickly becoming fodder for the Islamophobic hate-o-sphere and fueling conservative pundits’ fact-free speculation.
Then came CNN’s declaration that police had arrested a “dark-skinned male” — again, unquestioningly blared all over the world, drowning out a CBS News report alleging that the “man sought as a possible suspect is a white male, wearing a white baseball cap on backwards, a gray hoodie and a black jacket.”
And then this morning came the New York Post’s front cover purporting to show two dark-skinned men that the newspaper claimed police had identified as suspects. As Gawker shows, the Post opted to ignore previous reporting debunking that photo and eagerly published it on its front-page.
Taken together, this is much more than just the journalistic sloppiness of the 2000 Election Night now playing out in the coverage of a horrific terrorist attack. It is a rare spotlight on the prejudiced suppositions baked into our worldview, a commentary on what too much of America wants, and an illustration of the kind of bigotry that people of color in America unfortunately must live with on a daily basis.