The Implications of American Ignorance & Moving Forward


Chris Kuang

The United States’ relationship with race has always been a turbulent one: a storied relationship that persists today. Whether it be African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, or Latino Americans, all share a common thread: systemic oppression and its persistent effects. Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the substantial social progress achieved since, race relations and America’s perception–or rather misperception–of minorities remain a prominent issue that continues to plague America. Unfortunately, these tense race relations too often manifest themselves in acts of senseless violence. Moreover, when these incidents occur and involve firearms, many  politicians time and time again dismiss these actions simply as terrible acts done by some deranged outlier, choosing to ignore the motives of these acts which often include racism and/or misperceptions of minorities. The persistent existence of racism and systemic oppression in America has prompted many activists to write about the ignorance that endures in America and its subsequent effects. James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates are just two of these activists. Although their articles were published more than fifty years apart, their discussions of race and America’s perception of it remain extremely relevant, demonstrating the relative lack of progress in regards to race in America.

Although I have long contemplated the state of race relations in America, it was not until I read Coates’s “Letter to My Son” (published in the Atlantic)–specifically his discussion of the American Civil War and its portrayal–that I gained a clearer picture of the subject. Coates believes that the Civil War is all too often portrayed in America as a valiant war fought between two opposing sides trying to protect their beliefs, rather than a war for or against the enslavement of black people. This misperception of the Civil War encapsulates Coates’s idea of the Dream–the idea that America’s refusal to genuinely examine their history and treatment, or rather mistreatment, of minorities allows Americans to live in an unrealistic, utopian reality in which racism is a problem of the past. In fact, Coates writes, “American reunion was built on a comfortable narrative that made enslavement into benevolence, white knights of body snatchers, and the mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor and elan. This lie of the Civil War is the lie of innocence, is the Dream” (Letter to My Son, Coates). This Dream–this innocence–only perpetuates the issue of race in America to this day. Since a substantial percentage of Americans still refuse to recognize race as an issue facing America to this day, the issue of race is often neglected.

Unfortunately, this failure to address or recognize the issue of race often results in considerable disadvantages for minorities. Take the black community in Chicago for example. Chicago possesses one of the greatest wealth disparities based on race in this country. In his “The Enduring Solidarity of Whiteness,” Coates points to a chart from Emily Badger of the Washington Post to highlight this wealth gap; the chart shows that while 35% of the black community in Chicago lives in concentrated poverty, less than 5% of white Chicagoans meet this criteria. This is a trend that persists throughout America. As Coates argues, “black poverty is ‘fundamentally distinct’ from white poverty” (The Enduring Solidarity of Whiteness, Coates).

Although there are many varying economic approaches that can be taken to address this wealth disparity, ignorance of the state of race relations in America remains the fundamental cause of this issue. In fact, both Baldwin and Coates specifically call on America to recognize and accept its troubled history with minorities in order to make progress in regards to race relations. In his “The American Dream and the American Negro”, Baldwin states, “what one begs American people to do, for all sakes, is simply to accept our history” (The American Dream and the American Negro, Baldwin). Furthermore, Coates’s “Letter to My Son” highlights why it is so important for America to recognize its past transgressions in order for there to be social progress, saying “We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own” (Letter to My Son, Coates).

Until America acknowledges its dark past and accepts that the issue of race persists, little progress can be achieved. Congress is a case in point; while approximately 40% of the American population identifies as a racial minority, only 19% of the representatives of the 115th Congress–the Congress elected in 2016–were minorities. How can any social progress take place if minorities are underrepresented in American government and there still remain legislators who refuse to address the issue of race?

Still, minorities in America must not fall into the same trap of ignorance when attempting to remedy this issue. Personally, I used to get caught up in perceiving the issues facing me as an Asian American as issues of “us” against “them,” frequently becoming bitter and senselessly mad at those who I saw as forcing stereotypes upon me. However, upon reading Baldwin and Coates, I slowly realized that the majority of Americans are merely products of societal norms that perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices against minorities. Initially, I was dubious of this idea, but as I thought more about it and read more articles by Coates and Baldwin, it dawned on me that when one grows up surrounded by these stereotypes and prejudices, one grows up knowing nothing else. Instead of detesting individuals, minorities should detest ignorance–this is the true cause of the persistent inequality that they face. Baldwin highlights this idea in his “Letter to My Nephew,” saying “But these men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word “integration” means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it” (Letter to My Nephew, Baldwin).

Moving forward, minorities and all Americans must strive to educate themselves and others on issues regarding race to combat this ignorance. This education can come in many forms: discussion, forums, articles, but most importantly–and perhaps the most effective manner–representation in the media. How many times have you turned on the TV or found a movie on Netflix where minorities played more than just one central role? For me, these times have been a precious few. That’s why movies like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and Coco are so important. In today’s world which revolves around media, these movies present minorities with opportunities to have a platform where their voices can be heard and stereotypes shattered. In gaining these positions, minorities will remind Americans that minorities are Americans too and that their voices, opinions, and cultures should be heard, shared, and accepted. Through this education, I believe that America’s perception of minorities will change and as a result, seeing minorities in positions of power will shift from being an anomaly to a regular occurance–something that is accepted without question. In gaining positions of power, minorities can work to both educate America and implement legislation that reverses the many obstacles facing minorities and in turn, America can recognize its complicated relationship with race and social progress can be realized.