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Polarization and the need for common ground
A troubling trend sweeping across these so-called United States of America is polarization. We are increasingly being asked, or in some cases required, to choose one side or the other on many issues on the political and cultural landscape. This polarization is undoubtedly affecting how people feel about racism and racial discrimination in the country.
A recent poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health paints a bleak picture of the perception of the racial discrimination that many ethnic, identity and racial groups feel that they experience in their daily lives.
In one question from the survey, respondents were asked, “Generally speaking, do you believe there is or is not discrimination against (Respondent’s own group identity in America today?”
There were six groups surveyed: African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Whites (Non-Hispanic) and LGBTQ. The majority of each group (more than 50%) felt that their group was being discriminated against in America today, with African Americans having the highest rate of 92% and Whites (Non-Hispanic) the lowest at 55%.
If these results are truly reflective of the attitudes about racial discrimination in America then the battle lines have been drawn by each group, mainly along racial lines. If the vast majority of blacks and a majority of whites both feel that they are experiencing discrimination in America then this makes solutions around racial discrimination that much more difficult.
Neither side may have empathy for the other and may be unwilling to work towards a solution that isn’t centered around the perceptions of their own problems related to racial discrimination.
I believe that sports is one of, if not the, best vehicles that can be used to transport the polar opposite ends of our country towards a center of mutually beneficial change.
While it is true that as a participant and also as a fan, sports require us to choose sides, that choice however isn’t one that has historically led us to permanent polarization. Because of the meritorious nature of most sports – the best player gets to play no matter what their background – and the underlying and agreed upon rules of the games, sports allows us to put petty differences aside and play or cheer together towards a common goal.
The problem is that polarization is profitable. Eyeballs are the new currency and when the 24 hour news and content cycle was married with the instantaneous and sometimes anonymous feelings machines of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, apathy became the enemy. The worse thing that could happen was for an individual to not care, to not pay attention, to not look, to not click. The thin line that has now become a wall between love and hate is what is now driving those eyeballs and racking up the bucks.
It doesn’t matter what the issue is; as long as you can drive that wall between people and make them choose sides, then that’s a recipe for financial success.
While I’m sure that 45’s 140 character electronic carrier pigeon messages released from the top of the White House have served to move the percentages for all racial and identity groups noted above to the right, let’s not kid ourselves, the media is just as culpable.
The vacuum that was created from the lack of a narrative coming from the Accidental Activist, Colin Kaepernick created a void that the media and those who respond on their feelings machines entered into with a flurry of questions, opinions, reporting, narratives and counter narratives many of which were not nuanced enough to allow us to see the issue from multiple angles and potentially come to some semblance of common ground. This created yet another binary ballot that forced people to choose, many choosing strictly along racial lines.
On the surface, police brutality is not a polarizing issue. The manifestation of police brutality through the killing of unarmed black men and the reporting and framing of that narrative is where the division begins.
The media must understand that they (or should I say, we) significantly shape public opinion. If fake news can be blamed for swaying the outcome of an election then can’t biased news, reporting and opinion affect the perception of race relations in America?
Another question from the above survey was, “When it comes to discrimination against (Respondent’s own group identity) in America today, which do you think is the bigger problem?, 1) Discrimination based in the prejudice of individual people, 2) Discrimination based on laws and government policies or 3) Both equally”
“Among African Americans who believe discrimination against African Americans exists in America today, 49% say the larger problem is discrimination based in the prejudice of individual people. Twenty-five percent of African Americas who believe African American discrimination exists say that discriminated based on laws and government policies in the larger problem, and 25% say both equally are a problem.”
Nearly half of African Americans who thought that discrimination exists against African Americans think the larger problem is in the prejudice of individual people. The other half believes that larger problem is either with laws and government policies or both laws and government policies and individual prejudice.
This statistic is interesting because if it is reflective of the views of African Americans in general then we are in trouble, because even if we are able to somehow solve the problems associated with laws and government policies the perception of racism for half the population of African Americans may not change.
I realize that racism and the structural, institutional and individual challenges and problems that are a result of it are deeply rooted in the fabric and the history of our country. Although the challenge is daunting and the solutions are difficult and elusive we must stay committed to finding them.
This is where the media has to begin to weigh their level of social accountability against their financial accounting. In the old days before news networks chose sides they used to adhere to an FCC Equal Time Rule requiring them to provide equal time to any opposing political candidate who request it.
Instead of an Equal Time Rule, maybe we need a Common Ground Rule, where the media is required to show people among different race or identity groups actually cooperating for every story shown of those groups involved in strife.