The Toxic Combination of Race Relations and Economic Uncertainty

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Ben Cohen
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By Ben Cohen: The issue of race relations is never far from the media or public debate in America. The latest news from the tragic Trayvon Martin case (a revelation that the police initially seriously doubted shooter George Zimmerman's account of events) and the controversial immigration ruling in Arizona will no doubt reignite the tensions between white middle America and minority groups. It doesn't take much for the issue inflame opinion, particularly given the current economic conditions. When paychecks are far and few between and people are uncertain about the future, race relations in the US have historically deteriorated quickly.

Every school child learns that the economic crisis in Germany during the 1930's instigated the mass persecution of the Jews, but most people are unaware that there were alarming parallels in America at the same time. During the great depression in the 1930's hundreds of antisemitic organizations arose that were responsible for disseminating propaganda against Jews throughout the American public. Several popular theories ascribed the banking crisis to the meddling of Jews, and an international conspiracy to infiltrate the Roosevelt government. In cities with Jewish populations, it was routine for gangs to vandalize Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, and attack Jews for no apparent reason. Hitler was viewed positively in many communities, and Jews often lived in fear for their safety.

The link between economic hardship and racial tension is alarming, and should be a great cause for concern particularly given the fragile state of the economy today.

As the Republicans continue to hamper recovery efforts and the Democrats refuse to offer an adequate plan to boost the economic growth, America is in danger of reverting back to its darker days when angry whites took out their frustration on immigrants and minorities. Last year in Arizona, race crimes increased by 39%, and the national picture is equally worrying. An article in PolicyMic reveals:

According to hate crime statistics published by the FBI, crimes based on an anti-black racial bias have increased as a proportion to the number of racial hate crimes committed. From 1996 to 2007, the percentage of racial hate crimes committed due to anti-black sentiments was never above 70% (although it did come close at 69.7% in 1996). Since 2008, this percentage has topped 70% every year.

The infighting between those who would broadly be economically defined as working class works very well in the interest of the rich. While wealth inequality surges and legislation passes that works to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, distractions like the Trayvon Martin case and the anti immigration laws in Arizona are increasingly welcomed by those at the top end of the economic spectrum. As long as working class white people blame immigrants and minorities for their woes, they won't look to the root causes of the problem - the wholesale theft of wealth that comes from a corrupt banking system and rigged tax code.

Sadly, the perception that immigrants and minorities are responsible for the country's economic problems is also seeping over into younger generations. As Robert Jones writes in an article on racial tension between college age millenials, a significant number of whites believe that the government is too concerned with the welfare of non-whites:

Overall, almost half of Millennials (46 percent) believe that over the past few decades, the government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities, while only slightly more Millennials disagree (49 percent). A majority (56 percent) of white Millennials say that the government has paid too much attention to the problems of black and other minorities, compared to only 24 percent of black Millennials--a gap of more than 30 points.

This is a troubling picture given the massive progress of civil rights in America, and the public is in desperate need of a functioning media system to educate them about the real reasons behind the country's economic condition. The truth is that real battle for working people is an economic and class based one, and should have nothing to do with race. It is the fault of the media that ethnicity has such a huge effect during hard times, as there is little to no mention of the underlying problems that cause recessions and economic hardships. The media is owned by the wealthy, and as a consequence it reflect their interests. Rather than break a story about the effects of corporate corruption and widening poverty, the media would rather focus on issues that don't undermine their interests like election polls and politician's sex lives.

As race relations get more fraught, the media focuses on outcome, not cause, and given the lack of context people makes up their own mind as to who is to blame. Minorities are often the first to be targeted because it doesn't require much thought or effort. It is a vicious cycle - poverty breeds ignorance, and ignorance breeds racism. It can be stopped, but only through education. The problem is that through education, people would begin to understand who was really to blame for their predicament, and that simply wouldn't do.

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