Sunday, January 17, 2010

Without Color

Hope for our Future

There has been much discussion recently about the comments of our current Senate majority leader, Senator Harry Reid, regarding President Obama’s skin color and oratorical gifts. Away from the public eye Senator Reid observed that Pres. Obama had the necessary physical and verbal attributes that would allow a black American to win the election for President of the United States. These statements shed a negative light on the Senate majority leader.
Personally, I don’t think that Senator Reid is racist and I don’t think that his comments were intended to be a racial slur. Rather, he was most likely looking at our current president with a political eye, summing up the electorate’s state of readiness to accept a non-caucasian as president. Even still, there is something disturbing about his “politically incorrect” words.
It is sad that our society still looks at any subject, be it economic, educational, athletic or political in terms of race. Playing the “race card” remains a powerful ploy, appealing to society’s collective sense of guilt over past injustices. Although there has been progress over the last fifty years, society as a whole is a long way from being color blind.
In a perfect world Barack Obama would have won the 2008 election because he was intelligent, articulate and judged by the electorate to be most qualified to lead our country over the coming four years. The shade of his skin and the quality of his speech would not be mentioned, being completely irrelevant to the voters. It is likely that for large segments of the population this is true. However, there are far too many Harry Reids in our world; not truly judging individuals solely by their appearance, but still allowing such things to color their opinions.
Of course it is impossible to completely separate appearance from our evaluation of anyone or anything one may encounter. For instance, if one were conducting a job interview and the prospective candidate appeared dressed in a dirty T-shirt and cut-off shorts the interviewer’s initial impression may be altered in a negative way. It is possible that such an individual may shine so brightly in other ways that he could overcome such a sloppy appearance, but it certainly would make it more difficult, particularly if an equally well qualified person appeared neatly dressed in a suit and tie.
Overall, our society has made great strides, particularly over the last two generations, towards overcoming racial prejudices. Nobody bats an eye if an interracial couple is seen together in public. Our society seems to be going out of its way to accommodate, celebrate and heap approval on anyone that is deemed to be different. There seems to be a collective feeling of guilt over years of injustice, such that differences are not only acceptable, but also demand approval and, sometimes, special favor such as affirmative action.
Still, the fact that such approval can be viewed as arising from society’s collective guilty conscience carries with it a sour taste. This is because it remains no different than Senator Reid’s comments about our president. Those that give their approval simply because individuals are different or a member of a minority group continue to relegate the minority to a subconscious state of inferiority.
I hope the day comes when people are judged by their attributes, good or bad. Describing a person as black or brown or white should not be a means of separation; rather such description should be only for the purpose of distinguishing that person from another, in the same way as one may be described as short or tall. I would be very surprised if the Senator Reids of the world would have said that former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley would have been electable to the presidency because he is tall.
Years ago I made a decision to stop characterizing my patients in terms of race. It used to be that in the medical record I would usually begin my history with a phrase such as “35 y-o black male…” Such a description has been the norm for medical records for many years. Although race occasionally is a factor in some disease processes, I decided that categorizing my patients on the basis of race was inappropriate and did not contribute to the patient’s care in any meaningful sort of way. As a result of such thinking my entries now read “35 y-o male…” I don’t think any of my patients have suffered because of the change. It is, however, unfortunate that there are still some situations where race may be important. For instance, a psychiatrist likely would consider a patient’s race an important factor in making a proper evaluation.
I hope that there will come a time when a person’s inherent differences are only that: differences; distinguishing features but nothing more. It seems we are working towards such a goal, but ever so slowly. I suspect that with each passing generation the idea of one world composed of individual people will come closer to fruition and we will truly be a world “without color”.