Just Us/Kwame Salter

Kwame Salter
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The Impact of Social Distance

“The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them. That’s the essence of inhumanity.”

  • George Bernard Shaw

As I reflect on my life, I think about how I was systematically taught to accept being treated as a “minority.” Demographics, notwithstanding, I wasn’t born to be assigned a station in life that would relegate me to second-class citizenship. I was born free. I still consider myself the equal of any other human being. Yet, the society I was born into had pre-determined how I would be treated. To ensure that we, so-called minorities, understood our place in society, signage, laws, and customs were used to reinforce our minority status.

Today, the racist signs are collectible relics. Yet, the attitudes that created these signs are very much alive. My hue [skin color] in America is equivalent to the Star of David patches that the Nazis forced Jewish people to wear. Skin color is a shortcut to thinking for too many people. Darker skin color conjures in their mind images of inferiority, criminality, and immorality. Without ever speaking to or getting to know the minority person as an individual, too many of us accept stereotypes that have been carefully curated over hundreds of years.

Lack of social interaction leads to increased distance between minorities and non-minorities. As a result of socially encouraged social distance, knowledge of a minority person’s day to day life experiences is scant or non-existent. Unfortunately, what many non-minorities know about their minority fellow Americans comes from media stereotypes and bigoted narratives curated and handed down from generation to generation. Assertions about minorities include questioning their intelligence, work ethic, hygiene, and family dynamics. Why get to know them is the prevailing attitude, when trusted family members, friends and media have already validated these bigoted beliefs as facts.

Slights, verbal assaults, micro-aggressions, and physical attacks are realities a minority person must deal with daily. And, if the minority person reacts, resists, or complains about being unfairly treated, s/he is viewed as the agitator. This type of situation reminds me of a joke my father would tell us as children about growing up in the 1930’s apartheid South. The joke went like this, “A Klansman with ill intent recklessly runs over a Black pedestrian and the victim is violently thrown through the windshield. The Sheriff arrives and tickets the Black man for breaking and entering.”

As a young person, I got the punchline but I didn't understand that the joke was not a joke told for laughter — rather, it was a lesson in how a Black person is treated in our judicial system. Today, a Black person would have a hell of time using “Stand Your Ground” as a defense in reacting to verbal and physical attacks by a bigoted non-minority individual.

In summary, residential segregation leads to increased social distance between minorities and the majority population. We all tend to fear those situations and people that are unfamiliar to us. As one who has lived under the status of a minority, there are four things that irk me.

● Being defined by others based on stereotypes

● Being labeled in unsavory terms such as dumb, criminal or lazy

● Being harassed for no other reason than my pigmentation

● Being devalued and doubted without facts or personal knowledge

Social Distance must be decreased if we are to really get to know each other. However, because of the systemic nature of racial discrimination, getting to know each other as fellow Americans is a major challenge. I would suggest those Christians who belong to a church take the opportunity to get to know their minority parishioners. Unfortunately, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated, “the most segregated hour in America is on Sunday.”