Persistent Patterns of Race and Class

by Joe Auciello

In some recent movies, main characters who are especially observant, who skillfully discover hidden patterns and meaning, are ultimately shown to be mentally ill. Think “A Beautiful Mind,” “Shutter Island” or the films of M. Night Shyamalan. Meaning equals madness: it’s a clever premise for a suspenseful story.

In this notion, as in so many others, movies are at odds with real life. The world of our everyday existence is rife with patterns so familiar as to be almost invisible. If these patterns go unobserved, the explanation lies in the fact that they can be observed everywhere.

Take, for instance, the idea of the United States as a “post-racial society,” a phrase which by now must surely serve as the punch-line for countless ironic comments and jokes. Yet, the phrase is still used by conservatives and liberals alike to suggest an America that has, with the election of its first African-American president, advanced beyond the straitjacket of skin color. Certainly, this idea is not without foundation. Isn’t it true that many of Obama’s critics and opponents are hostile to his policies, not his person, and that they detest Pelosi and Reid, white leaders of House and Senate Democrats, with equal fervor?

Nonetheless, social patterns based on race persist, racism itself persists, and it would be madness to deny them or fail to recognize them.

The reality of race is quite visible in the major institutions of our society. Visit, for instance, a large Boston hospital in liberal Massachusetts, a facility widely recognized throughout the country for the quality of its care and overall excellence. It will be impossible not to recognize social patterns signified by skin color, as well as gender. These can be missed only by, literally, shutting one’s eyes.

The social stratification of this hospital is no surprise to anyone in America willing to observe not just the medical field but the larger society.

In the hospital, status and power were directly related to race, ethnicity, and gender. A Black or Latino male loaded the mostly white patients on to gurneys and wheeled them from one place to the next. Nurses who spoke with patients and wrote information into computer programs were white and middle-aged. Nurses who performed the necessary and messy work of actually handling patients (Licensed Practical Nurses, or LPNs) were Asian, usually Filipino, or Latino. A young white male who entered a patient’s hospital room was an intern. An older white male whose footsteps in the corridor resounded with power and authority was obviously a doctor, perhaps a surgeon.

The most sympathetic people in the hospital – the LPNs – were also among the most powerless. This quickly becomes apparent in the making of minor decisions, like removing an unnecessary and painful intravenous needle, which violates company, that is, hospital policy.

Are there exceptions to this scenario? Yes, a few. There were always just enough exceptions to prove the rule.

Nor does the existence of a Black middle class (numbers and percentage differ, depending on how the concept of “middle class” is defined) disprove the reality of hardship and discrimination from which the majority of Black America suffers.

Of course, that relatively privileged class is not protected from prejudice, as a number of Black politicians were reminded when, according to an Associated Press report (3/21/10), “tea party opponents of the health care overhaul… chanted ‘the N-word, the N-word, 15 times” at Black congressmen and “spit” on them.

To answer the question whether of whether the United States today is a post-racial society, just observe the racial patterns that persist in the institutions that make up America. Look at the hospitals, not just the hospitals named “Charity” or “Mercy,” but the big hospitals with progressive reputations. Look at the public schools, not in just the cities but in the suburbs, too. Look at America top to bottom, from prisons to boardrooms. The inability to observe a society dominated by race would be akin to blindness or mental illness.

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