“Oh, the rich folks hate the poor folks
And the poor folks hate the rich folks
All of my folks hate all of your folks
It’s American as apple pie.”
– Tom Lehrer’s “National Brotherhood Week.”
The issues of racism and fissures in our society are very much in the news these days, from sea to shining sea. Some of the news media are still obsessing about goose-stepping in school over here, and it’s become increasingly chic – on the far left – to say that America is a racist country.
Let’s deconstruct the whole idea of racism. First off, “race” has no biological significance; there’s just one race, the human race. There are ethnicities, perhaps, but even that concept is shaky. If a woman of Swedish background marries a man of Mexican heritage and she takes his name, the demographers will count her as Hispanic.
If you study history – which apparently very few people today have – you will see how religion, sex, gender, language, tribe, skin color, geography and wealth (or the lack of it) have been easily as divisive as “race” or other factors.
Europe was riven by bloody religious wars among Christians for centuries. India (primarily Hindu) and Pakistan (primarily Muslim) are mortal enemies largely because of their faiths.
My ancestors are from Italy, but the people from the north of the boot (lighter skinned, more likely to be blonde) look down on the folks in the south (darker skinned, poorer) and both groups look down on the Sicilians.
In Mexico, social status is determined in part by skin tone; the lighter the skin, the more advantage you have, a kind of south-of-the-border “white privilege.” In the Canadian province of Quebec, the English-speaking minority gets a lot of guff from the French-speaking majority.
The list goes on and on. We dislike or fear people or groups who aren’t the same as us, and very few of us are immune to it. Even within often-oppressed minorities there are biases and discrimination. I have heard lesbians speak ill of gay men, and homosexuals mock bisexuals.
Politics divide us and some of us embrace ridiculous stereotypes. All liberals are tree-hugging snowflakes who hate America and all conservatives are gun-kissing mouth-breathers who hate anyone who’s not white.
To me, the greatest divider is money. There are few social or ethnic handicaps in America that can’t be overcome by having a big house, a fancy college degree (even if you didn’t learn much) and a bulging bank account.
Regardless of every other prejudice, in today’s U.S. of A, you can live a different life if you’ve got a bunch of cash. And, of course, some of us don’t like them either.
So, if we replace the wobbly concept of racism with the more honest idea of xenophobia, we can face squarely the issue of prejudging “the other.” In the Civil War film “Gettysburg,” a crusty sergeant says “Anyone who judges by the group is a pea wit. You take people, one at time.”
A lot of us can’t do that, and yet it’s the only way to someday have that “brotherhood” (or sisterhood) that Mr. Lehrer so archly mocked 50 years or more ago.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts is usually posted on Wednesdays except when it comes out on Thursdays.