For Immediate Release
Sept. 15, 2011
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June in Mississippi was a time to kill...for a white racist teen who tracked down a black man and took his life. To the perpetrator, the crime made perfect sense. It was an act of hate that he seems destined to perform.
This past week, I was moved to read that the family of James Craig Anderson is asking the alleged murderer not be executed. They are sending a message to Mississippi officials of forgiveness -- a rare message into a state that typically ignores the deep consequence of hate crimes, intolerance or inequality.
If you have not followed this horribly sad story, Anderson, 49, was targeted solely because of his "race" and run over by a white teenager in a pickup truck on June 26. His death, captured on a hotel surveillance video, stoked anger across the country when the footage went public.
Until CNN showed the video, after being approached by angry Mississippi citizens, the state of Mississippi had done very little concerning this crime. One official suggested that Anderson had probably done something to make the young man angry.
Drew Griffin and Scott Bronstein of the CNN Special Investigations Unit report today that Anderson's sister, Barbara Anderson Young, wrote to the county's district attorney, saying her family does not want anyone to face the death penalty. She cited the family's Christian beliefs and opposition to capital punishment.
"Those responsible for James' death not only ended the life of a talented and wonderful man," says her letter, dated Tuesday. "They also have caused our family unspeakable pain and grief. But our loss will not be lessened by the state taking the life of another."
Deryl Dedmon, 19, was arrested on a charge of capital murder, which is punishable by death or life without parole. He has not been indicted and it will be up to a grand jury to decide on the formal charges.
Dedmon and a group of teens had been partying late that night in suburban Rankin County when he asked a group of them to go out looking for a black man to "mess with," police reports state. Seven people allegedly loaded up in two cars and headed to Jackson.
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So let the dialogue begin; here is my contribution, considering what scientists and social scientists tell us about race:
We are not teaching very well in school, at church, at work, at our civic groups or anywhere else what these academics are finding, and this is a grave mistake.
One person’s eyes are blue and your eyes are green. They have dark hair and your hair is light. Their skin is black and your skin is white. People may look a little different, but what do these differences mean, and do they even matter?
Here is the scientific answer in a nutshell: These differences are small, they mean nothing and basically do not matter.
Yet, despite solid scientific information, for some people, “race” seems to be a real issue. These differences, they believe, really matter.
So what is race? Is it “real” -- has race always been with us? How does race affect people today? Why would skin color make such a difference, so that some white teens would go out at night, looking for a black person, to kill?
These questions have answers.
Exceptionally helpful answers about “race” have been around for quite some time. I particularly respect the easy-to-understand information that was presented over eight years ago in a special documentary, RACE - The Power of an Illusion, produced by California Newsreel in association with the Independent Television Service (ITVS). Major funding was provided by the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Diversity Fund.
First -- Race is a new idea; it has not been around for ages.
The Greeks and other ancient societies didn’t divide people according to physical difference. They broke up groups by looking at religion, class, language, status, and so forth. We didn’t even have the term “race” in the English language until William Dunbar wrote a poem using the word – referring to a line of kings.
Second – is not a scientific reality; there is no genetic basis for the concept of race.
There are no characteristics, traits or gene differences in members of one “race” and another. Susan (me), a white woman, has no charactertistics or genetic differences than Larry (my friend from Zimbabwe) who is black.
Period. End of story. Tell this to Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck – anyone who tries to stir up trouble by stereotyping of people, according to “race.” Or to someone who makes disparaging remarks about President Barack Obama – because of his “race.”
Ancient societies, like the Greeks, did not divide people according to physical distinctions, but according to religion, status, class, even language. The English language didn't even have the word 'race' until it turns up in 1508 in a poem by William Dunbar referring only to a line of kings.
Third – humans do not have subspecies.
We have not been around long enough to isolated enough to evolve into separate “races” or subspecies. We might look a little different from each other – I don’t look much like my friend, Larry – but those differences are only on the surface. People are one of the most similar of all species. We have few differences, even though we make look quite a bit different from some others.
So, Fourth – Skin color really is only skin deep.
Most distinguishing characteristics, or traits, are inherited independently from one another. This means that the genes (units of heredity) influencing skin color have nothing to do with the genes influencing hair form, eye shape, blood type, musical talent, athletic ability or forms of intelligence. Knowing someone's skin color does not tell you much else about him or her. (Not all black people are musicians or athletes. This is not an accurate assumption to make.)
Fifth – Most variation is within, not between, "races."
Of the small amount of total human variation, some 85% exists within any local population, be they Italians, French, Koreans or Navajo. About 94% can be found within any continent. “That means two random Chinese may be as genetically different as an Austrian and an Italian.
Sixth – Slavery came before the idea of race.
Throughout much of human history, societies have enslaved others, often after conquest or war, or even due to debt. But people were not enslaved because of physical characteristics or a belief in natural inferiority.
In the United States, because of perhaps unique historical events, we set up the first slave system where all those enslaved shared similar physical characteristics – their skin was black.
Seventh – Race and freedom came about together.
The U.S. was founded on the radical new principle that "All men are created equal." But our early economy was based largely on slavery. How did this happen? The new idea of race helped rationalize why some people could be denied the rights and freedoms that others were given.
Eighth – Race made it possible for social inequalities to be considered natural.
As people latched on to the idea of race, along came white superiority as "common sense" in America. This justified not only slavery but also the killing off of Indians, exclusion of Asian immigrants, and the taking of Mexican lands by a nation that professed a belief in democracy. Manifest destiny was used to explain away racial practices that were institutionalized within American government, laws, and society.
Ninth – Race is not a biological fact, but racism is a real problem.
Race is a powerful social idea that allows some people complete access to opportunities and resources while taking away opportunities for others. If you do not believe this, visit a public school in a primarily black or Hispanic neighborhood.
Our government and social institutions give tremendous advantages that disproportionately channel wealth, power and resources to white people. You may or may not be aware of this, but regardless, you are affected in some way.
Tenth – Finally, insisting that Racism does not exist, will not end racism.
“We are all one family.” How many times have you heard a company owner or executive make this statement? Or…“I treat everyone the same, no matter the color of their skin.”
Sorry, we are not all the same family and people’s differences need to be understood and respected – embraced. Everyone is not alike. And this is good news! We are not a melting pot in this country – we are a tossed salad —a nd to pretend what we call race doesn't exist is not the same as creating equality.
Race, while it is not a scientific or biological reality, still exists – and “racism” is more than harmful stereotypes and individual prejudice. We need to identify and remedy social policies and institutional practices that come to us via “race” – practices that give tremendous advantage to some groups at the enormous expense of others.
Practices that preach hate and cause horrific crimes to take place, crimes such as the killing of a man because of his skin color.
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The Mississippi family members who lost their beloved son and sibling because of this murder, deserves our nation's attention and respect. They have experienced an enormous loss, returning their sorrow only with love and a request that we start talking.
So, let us begin talking; the time surely is now.
We have an obligation to James Craig Anderson and his family, and to ourselves and each other.
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Susan Klopfer, a New Mexico author and former Prentice Hall editor, has written three books on the history of the Mississippi civil rights movement, Emmett Till and related topics. She is currently working on a book about a gay Mississippi civil rights attorney who was murdered in 1997. Forensic questions about his death remain, she believes. For more information, visit her website at http://susanklopfer.com where you can link to her blogs and other sites.