Understanding Systemic Inequality by Exploring Race and Immigration Through a Sociological Lens
“In everything, therefore, treat others as you would like them to treat you” Mt 7:12
The scope of this paper is to provide an overview, a context for thinking about our societal diversity rooted primarily in the areas of race, immigration and its consequences from a sociological perspective. Its purpose is to deepen our understanding of these areas in order to surface and if need be, challenge the way we see, feel and act toward others whom we label as “different”. Lastly, this paper raises questions for reflection, with the intention that the answers may prompt a deepened personal commitment to positive action of some type.
Our American society is composed of individuals and groups who are of European (Northern, Eastern, and Southern), African, Asian, Latino, Mid-Eastern and Native American origin; who are male and female, and who hold or operate out of many religious traditions-Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, in addition to new spiritual groups and movements. All these are diverse in their color, size, wealth, education, culture and language. Often times, these “differences” we see among us prompt us to perceive and act toward people in ways that convey a belief that the differences we see are absolute in nature, when in fact they are arbitrary and proven to have no basis in biological or genetic origin. Behaving in ways that place people into categories violates basic human dignity, a fundamental principle of social justice, and has profound personal, organizational and societal consequences.
From this reality, questions arise: Why do groups relate to other groups the way they do? How can we recognize both similarities and differences and yet move to a place of oneness as a human community which respects the dignity and rights of all people? What do we need to change in our understanding of a “unified” American Society in order to have and provide equal access and opportunity across ALL our institutions for ALL Americans from ALL backgrounds? Since our country’s foundation, we have thought of ourselves as “unified”, when in reality, “unified” has often been portrayed as an Anglo-Saxon society.
Before discussing race and immigration which, hopefully, will help to answer these questions, it is important to note that each of us operates out of a cultural system in relation to one another and this may, indeed, impact our patterns of thinking and acting. An illustration of this point: When I entered the Portland Regional Community of the Sisters of Mercy, as an Italian American from New York, after a short time, I became intensely aware that I was becoming part of an Irish community located in Maine. For me, several differences were quickly noted:
- Food. Within Italian households, the preparation of and the shopping for food, the discussion of what will be eaten, the conversation over it, and, during the meal itself, discussing what the next meal will be is a major focal point.
- Conversation. The impassioned expression of ideas, open conversations, direct questions and heated discussions and debates (usually at the table with food) are very much a part of everyday life.
- Expressing Affection. Family members greet each other in the morning with an embrace, kiss goodbye for the day, hug hello in the evening, and embrace again before going to sleep. We cry together in sadness, laugh heartily in joy and embrace warmly as a sign of love on all occasions great and small!
- Organizational Church. Faith and the development of spirituality are extremely important, with less emphasis being paid to the institutional Church per se, its rules and regulations. The latter are thought about as “guidelines” which need serious consideration, but which need not be taken literally.
- Geographic Culture. My style of conversation is impacted by my experience of living in New York, where culturally communication is often direct and assertive, not aggressive, although it can be interpreted as such. In Maine, conversation is often more indirect and reticent in style.
This cultural background, in relationship to the Irish-Maine culture I encountered, caused me at times to be puzzled as to why food did not appear to be important; why asking questions directly, expressing ideas with intense feeling, or demonstrating affection were not the normative pattern for communication within the religious community and why the Church “guidelines” were taken so seriously, instead of being relegated to the “noble” role of “suggestions” to be considered.
To recognize and understand that we are shaped by and act out of our own “cultural” experience, is meaningful as we move to explore and deepen our knowledge of diversity....
Michele Aronica rsm is a memberof the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.
She is Professor/Chair, Sociology Department St Joseph's College of Maine
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