Racism or Something Else?


That’s been a common bumper sticker here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for as long as I can remember. Our most prominent ethnic group, if not our largest, is Dutch-Americans.

If you're not Dutch bumper sticker


That’s also been a common bumper sticker here in Grand Rapids – usually displayed upside-down by a good-natured Polish-America, a member of our second largest ethnic group.

Proud to be Polish

I grew up Dutch-Canadian (my parents were immigrants first from the Netherlands to Canada, and later moved from Canada to the States) and attended predominantly ethnic Dutch-American churches and schools.

The underlying assumption (sometimes spoken aloud) is that the Dutch-American subculture is the best, our Reformed faith is the best, and of course everyone should be like us.

I’m sure the same goes for whatever your cultural tradition is.

Is This Racism?

I rarely call these transplanted Dutchmen – some of their ancestors came to Miching in the middle of the 19th century – racists.

Yes, some of them are, but more likely they’re ethnicists. “If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much” cuts off the African-American and the Pole, the Latino and the Native American.

It’s human nature to define ourselves as the norm and others as barbarians. (The Greeks coined that term for anyone who wasn’t Greek, because all their speech sounded like bar bar bar bar bar.)

Today’s news is full of ethnic strife. Kosovo. Northern Ireland. Sudan. Apple Computer.

Apple Computer?

Yes, according to the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

In announcing his intention not to seek the presidency in 2000, Rev. Jackson said he could do more good for the country by promoting increased minority representation on corporate boards.

He cited Apple as a negative example, since Apple has no African-American or Latino members on its board.

What Is Racism?

I grew up in a fairly progressive home, at least as far as my relatively conservative ethnic group was concerned. I belonged to a church in the inner city, went to a private school with some African-American and Latino students (although we used different terms back then, such as Black and Hispanic), and was taught to judge others on their merits, not the color of their skin or their ethnic background.

The goal is to see others for who they are regardless of origin. You can’t avoid seeing skin color, but it should become incidental.

So I get suspicious when somebody uses race as a trump card.

Why is Rev. Jackson picking on Apple Computer?

Here’s what he said:

“I am not fooled when Apple Computer uses the images of Jackie Robinson, Cesar Chavez, and Miles Davis in its advertising campaigns, but fails to include a single African-American or Latino on its board.”

Think Different poster, Mahatma GandhiBy this reasoning, not only should Apple have African-American and Latino board members, but also Indian (Gandhi), Jewish (Jerry Seinfeld), Tibetan (the Dalai Lama), and Spanish (Picasso). And I’m sure there are other groups I’m missing.

It is ludicrous to imagine that someone should fill a slot on a board of directors simply because they share the same background as someone used in an ad. Board members should be selected for the expertise they bring to the board, not based on ethnic origin. (On the other hand, it makes a great sound bite for Rev. Jackson!)

But isn’t that exactly what Rev. Jackson wants? Isn’t he saying corporate America, including Apple Computer, should select some board members by making their ethnic origin or race more important than merit?


Frankly, I’d hate to get a job just because I was Dutch, Canadian, an immigrant, white, or belonged to the right church. I want to be hired for what I can offer the company, not for something I have little or no control over.

Affirmative action programs were created to undermine a system where factors such as race and ethnic background were more important than merit. Affirmative action worked by forcing the opposite: Instead of giving preference to whites, employers were required to give preference to minorities.

It was probably the best way to bring racial and ethnic diversity into many workplaces. Until we go to school, church, or work with those of other backgrounds, we see them as other, as suspect, as unknown. But when we live, work, and worship with them, we discover our common humanity.

Unfortunately, affirmative action also discriminates. Instead of being judged on merit, a lot of whites found themselves losing jobs to nonwhites who were less qualified. Slowly, backlash set in.

Today we may be erring in the other direction as we try to create a level field where merit is more important than skin color. After a generation of affirmative action, which has had various levels of success, we see that race should no longer be a deciding factor – qualification should.

I believe the ideal the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. strove for is closer now than it was thirty years ago. My children attend school with white, Latino, African-American, Asian, and other children. They choose their friends based on common interests, not skin color.

Their parents weren’t brought up that way, but we try to overcome that. The same goes for our parents.

Racism hasn’t died, but a lot of people have learned to look past skin color and funny last names to see others as fellow human beings. White supremacists, black nationalists, and other bigots can’t do anything to stop that.

Those who find their identity in hating others are to be pitied, not followed.

I believe Apple’s deliberate choice to celebrate diversity in their Think Different ads shows they are not a company that looks down on others because of the color of their skin – whether Apple has African-American or Latino board members or not.

Further Reading

Keywords: #racism #jessejackson #affirmativeaction #thinkdifferent

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