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Mel Gibson and America's hidden racism

By Blair H. Taylor, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Blair Taylor says in recordings released, Mel Gibson purportedly had racially offensive tirade
  • The recordings, he says, should alert us to 21st century's sub rosa racial hostility in U.S.
  • Laws, societal pressure may have damped open racism, but it persists privately, he says
  • Taylor: Society must push back aggressively at racism by educating next generation

Editor's note: Blair H. Taylor is president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League. He was named one of the Top 50 Nonprofit Leaders of Power and Influence in 2009 and 2010 by Non Profit Times.

(CNN) -- Actor and director Mel Gibson appears to be at it again. This time the issue is not a tirade berating Jews and women in front of police officers. Instead, it's an outrageous message that was apparently left on his girlfriend's answering machine and likely was never supposed to come under public scrutiny.

The despicable message ended with the voice of someone purported to be Gibson telling his girlfriend that her dress was so provocative, she was likely to be "gang-raped by a bunch of n*****s." The audio recording, one of several, appeared on the website RadarOnline. (CNN cannot independently confirm the authenticity of the tapes.)

Let's set aside for the moment whatever Gibson's psychological issues may be. Of even more concern are what such "behind the scenes" remarks can tell us about ourselves and our culture.

Americans, so anxious to believe that we have entered into a "post-racial era," tend to ignore the one element needed to corroborate such a conclusion: a lack of racial animus.

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Clearly over the last 40 years, our laws have greatly mitigated once commonplace displays of racism. It is rare that the N-word gets dropped publicly in a racially charged situation; again Gibson's conversation was meant to be private. In America's institutions, where there is great awareness of the legal implications, overt forms of discrimination are far less frequently seen than before.

The country has made real progress. But it would be naive to imagine that racism has disappeared with the ascent of an African-American to the White House.

The reality is that racism is very alive today. It has simply morphed into a more dangerous, odious and insidious form. In fact, 21st-century American racism looks and sounds precisely like the alleged Mel Gibson recording.

Once upon a time a man with such evident racial prejudices would probably have owned slaves and used racial epithets publicly, with complete impunity. Moved by a combination of fear of legal action, political correctness and pure cowardice, the prejudiced have gone behind closed doors.

In place of public promulgations and actions that would clearly identify someone like Gibson as the person he really is, a man like this conveys his innermost beliefs to his girlfriend. Instead of negative sentiments about African-Americans being expressed directly to a black man's face, they're expressed in private and taught to children, family and others who can be influenced to hate.

This 21st-century form of racism is running rampant in our society and it is more difficult to combat than its 20th-century cousin. By day, the prejudiced cordially converse and interact with people of all backgrounds and ethnicities. But by night, they espouse racial hatred in closeted, private circles.

In the past there was something liberating in at least being able to identify those who were the real racists. Please do not misunderstand. I am not longing for a return to the days of old America when African-Americans like Emmett Till died because they looked at another person on the street. However, today there are many of us who might rather have someone call us the N-word out loud than have them smile in our faces.

So what am I looking for? First, an acknowledgement that racism is still all around us. We cannot fight a problem that we do not even believe exists. Second, and even more importantly, we must quickly acknowledge the modern era of race relations in America and build a new, comprehensive set of strategies and approaches to combat this different manifestation of prejudice.

There are many in the military who acknowledge that the tactics used for 20th-century warfare are not effective against the threats in this century. Conventional weaponry cannot succeed against determined terrorists who successfully melt into the civilian population. By analogy, we need to understand the profound metamorphosis of American racism and construct new "weaponry" to combat it.

This reality has practical and policy implications. Just as we must convince people in Afghanistan of the virtues of a free society to stanch the spread of terrorism, we must focus on convincing the next generation of Americans that diversity is a great asset to be embraced, not a liability to be feared.

Open discussions and dialogues about race are required. They must be built more frequently into the curriculums of our schools and promoted by reasonable minds and organizations.

Leveraging the incredible strength of our nation's diversity--or failing to do so--will not only have implications for our social justice and peace internally, it will also be the single most important element defining the United States' global stature.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Blair Taylor.