Rising racial tensions in Kern addressed by BC professors

Ambria King, Reporter

Over the past three years, there has been a sharp spike in racial tension in the U.S. According to a Gallup poll taken in March of 2017, “42 percent of Americans worry a great deal about race relations.” When the same poll was taken back in 2014, only 14 percent reported having such worries. The effects of these tensions have been witnessed fairly close to home. On April 18, Kori Ali Muhammed, 39, was taken into custody by the Fresno Police Department in connection with the murders of three white men in downtown Fresno. Meanwhile, two days prior to the Fresno incident, on April 16, three African-American women were attacked with a knife at a Circle K in Southwest Bakersfield. Two men have been arrested in connection with the attack. Both incidents have been labeled as hate crimes.

“Racial tensions have increased in America,” said Talita Pruett, who teaches Intercultural Communication at Bakersfield College. “We have a political climate where we have a country leadership that openly has been divisive and exclusive. I think that empowers people who are more racist and prejudiced to speak up and be vocal about racism. They feel more justified and validated.” Pruett pointed to social media, among other things, as one of the possible culprits for the increase in racial tensions. “You would think we’re in a better spot. We have more diversity with our news sources, but research tells us otherwise,” said Pruett. “With the advent of social media and blogs, we have so many options that we choose and seek out news that reinforces what we already believe. I think that causes people to become more polarized.”

This polarization, in conjunction with the political climate, is what Pruett considers to be the driving forces behind the increase in racial tension. Nae Herring, one of the three women who was targeted in the racially motivated attack that took place outside of the Circle K market on Stine Road, says the incident was the first time she had ever experienced racism in her life.

“People should let the past be the past,” said Herring. “Racism is not an OK thing. Black people have had to deal with stuff like this for years and years, and I just think everyone should be treated equal.” While equal treatment under the law is a right guaranteed to all citizens of the United States, people of color often do not receive equality when it comes to opportunity. “We live in a country that is structured to provide more opportunities to white people than people of color,” said BC Communication Department professor Helen Acosta. “The tension we are feeling right now is because the traditional structural supports that have protected white opportunity are being crushed by the largest wealth gap in the last 70 years.” Acosta points to this disparity in wealth as a key factor in the heightened racial tensions that are currently taking place. “The wealthiest people in the U.S. hold close to 20 percent of the wealth,” she said. “This leaves crumbs, not only for people of color who have always been shut out of opportunity, but for working class white people who expect opportunities to be theirs for the taking. This has led to a white-rage that has been bubbling for a long time.” This rage is evident in the fact that the number of hate groups operating in the United States has grown for the second consecutive year. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 892 active hate groups operating in the U.S. in 2015, and 917 in 2016.

“Racial tensions nationwide have increased dramatically,” said Acosta. “The causes are the same complex causes that have always existed beneath the surface, but changes in opportunity for white people have worsened the issue.” Pruett said, “I’ve had students in my class this semester, now in 2017, who believe that racism does not exist in California, because I think that people’s idea of racism is KKK. So they think that if somebody is being aggressive that’s the only way to be racist.”

According to both Acosta and Pruett, this is not the case. “We all take actions that favor whites over non-whites and most of the time we aren’t even aware that we are participating in this cultural favoritism,” said Acosta. Acosta and Pruett both pointed to studies that show how traditionally white names, faces, and bodies are preferred, not only by white people, but by people of color. “It isn’t because whites are, in any way, better than any other group of people. It is because the system we live in conditions us to prefer everything that is related to whiteness,” said Acosta.

With the rise of racial tensions being rooted in both systemic and social issues, improving the situation is no small task. Both Pruett and Acosta point to education as the solution. “We need to increase our racial literacy,” said Acosta. “We need to learn the history of racial suppression in the US and, instead of being ‘uncomfortable’ and getting defensive about it, we need to learn to talk about it. Own the history, and work to dismantle the system that gives preference to whiteness.”