July 17, 2021

Race and the “ism” That Won’t Go Away.

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

It’s the “ism” that sullies any discussion of race in America.

Race, after all, is simply a social construct that describes various ethnic groupings. The “ism” defines how we react to the other, those who fall into one of those not-like-us ethnicities. Race or religion-based isms illustrate how various ethnicities negatively react to everyone outside of their particular ethnicity. The isms are the boulders societies seem condemned to eternally push up uphill just as Sisyphus was condemned to do after incurring the wrath of Zeus.

Racism has played a sad and often tragic role that has tormented the life of millions throughout history. Addressing the impact of racism on society, any society, is appropriate and essential if humanity is to evolve toward a more just paradigm for the cultures that inhabit the planet, let alone our country.

Many people seem to believe that the history we teach should simply acknowledge that we once had slavery in America, that it was abolished in 1865 when the Union defeated the Confederacy. And, yes, there was lingering racism and Jim Crow laws, but that ended when Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So much for racism in America.

But that would be a national lesson plan that educated no one. That would simply be an exercise in classroom anesthesia. On the other hand, imparting a sense of guilt to this generation of young Americans for the agonies visited upon generations of African Americans by prior generations of Americans is both wrongheaded and certain to further confound the quest for harmony in America.

Let’s recognize that our history has, at times (including the present), constituted a painful journey for many Americans. But let’s also acknowledge that we Americans, every one of us, have an obligation to acknowledge, if not embrace, our most sacred founding principle that, “We (Americans) hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Those words electrified the world. They constituted a radically new paradigm and a sacred commitment to one another as true today, for 21st century Americans, as for any generation of Americans in our history. If we, as Americans, no longer embrace these inalienable rights and that commitment to justice for all, then that remarkable 245-year old declaration of our purpose and our independence is but a relic—nice, but not very relevant.  

While our declaration that all men are created equal may be accurate at the miracle of conception, any notion of real equality thereafter is, of course, nonsense here in America and everywhere else as well. The ideal we strive for is that everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve life’s blessings consistent with their talent and determination to succeed to the full extent of their capability.

Until the 1964 Civil rights Act was passed and signed into law, we could not even seriously pretend that liberty was equally and commonly enjoyed in our country. Quite the contrary, it was in varying degrees systematically denied or infringed concerning America’s black citizens in much of the country, both in the south and, to varying degrees, in the north as well. Indeed, the history of unequal application of the law in sentencing whites and blacks for similar infractions of the law is an agonizingly well-documented “ism”.

A 2015 study of men facing first-time felony charges found that darker-skinned black men received sentences that were, on average, 400 days longer than their white counterparts, while medium-skinned black men received sentences about 200 days longer than their white counterparts. On average, black men received a sentence 270 days longer than white men.

I hasten to add that serious efforts are underway at all levels of the criminal justice system to address these inequities, these remaining isms. The system understands that this systemic racism exists, and, belatedly, serious efforts are being made to address the problem. Nonetheless, systemic racism lingers on throughout the economic life of the country.

I have discussed, in these columns, studies that demonstrate the quantifiable extent to which applicants for advertised corporate job openings are routinely culled, resulting in obviously white candidates being called for interviews five or six times more frequently than identically qualified candidates who are obviously black. The routine advantage or disadvantage many job applicants experience simply because of their race has immense, lifelong implications for their pursuit of economic mobility and security and, therefore, their fundamental, inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.

So, let’s face it; the pursuit of happiness, which is so integral and foundational to the American experience, is seriously compromised when that pursuit is institutionally made more difficult for some.

That reality remains the “ism” that just won’t go away unless we collectively strive to banish it.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the essay’s subject or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

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6 responses to “Race and the “ism” That Won’t Go Away.”

  1. Perry says:

    Please note that when the Civil Rights Laws were passed
    87% of Republicans voted for them as opposed to only 69%
    of Democrats.
    I maintain today that racism exists more on the left than the
    right and always has.

    While I have experienced racism it is far from pervasive.
    America was and is the greatest country in the world.

    • Response to Mr. Green: Mr. Green is correct with respect to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Nonetheless, one must be careful in overgeneralizing. The final vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, was passed with 61 percent of House Democrats voting in favor of the bill, compared to 53 percent of House Republicans. Of the four Civil Rights Acts passed between 1960 and 1968, the passage of 1968 legislation marked the first time that the Democrats voted for Civil Rights legislation at a higher percentage than Republicans.

  2. Susan Duman says:

    This ism is across the board. We have a long way to go. Maybe the protests since George Floyd and the responses to January 6 have, at least, made more people aware that the isms exist.
    You do your job by making your readers think.
    My appreciation.
    Susan Duman

  3. Terri Ketover says:

    Terrific and much needed essay, Hal, particularly at this time when so many believe they can rewrite & “whitewash” history.

  4. Shirley Nasoff says:

    The problem with your essays, Hal, is that they don’t reach enough people.
    I have seen, recently, that more blacks are seen on TV in commercials, hosting shows, news journalists, political arena, and weekly episodes. PBS has run many documentaries on blacks and black history. So, there is some progress being made. If people would just stop and think about the contributions blacks have made to this country… agriculture, medicine, art, entertainment, just to mention a few…they don’t get the credit they deserve.
    Thank you, Hal, for bringing this to the attention of your readers.

  5. Shelly Weisberg says:


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