MY SMALL CONTRIBUTION TO
THE CONVERSATION ON RACE
Back in the early 1960s when I was in ninth grade, I was selected to represent Franklin Delano Roosevelt Junior High School at a regional gathering of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. At that time, NCCJ was a leading exponent of racial integration in support of the then-current Civil Rights Movement (the group is now called the National Conference for Community and Justice, a much trendier/leftier name).
The event I attended featured a slate of speakers, both black and white, addressing the topic of interracial cooperation. They cast that objective in terms of brotherhood, reflecting the faith-based organization’s sponsorship of “National Brotherhood Week.”
The next day I gave a report on the program over my school’s PA system. I thought I did a bang-up job. But afterward, several schoolmates complained that my presentation was more of a sermon than a report, and much too long.
Alas, certain tendencies of a budding writer showed even then.
I’ll confess to having been carried away by the romance of the event. It was exciting to be among a group of distinguished adults — educators, business people, professionals, religious leaders — getting my first close-up glimpse of the great social changes underway throughout the country.
Brotherhood had seemed an exhilarating ideal on which to focus at that charged moment in our history. If the wave of goodwill in which I’d been immersed was a portent of the nation’s future, than we surely could expect a much improved society that would vindicate the pain and suffering of a conflicted racial past.
More than a half-century later, our record on achieving brotherhood is decidedly mixed.
One indication is the commentary on racial attitudes offered by President Obama during the memorial ceremony for those police officers slain in Dallas…
“America, we know that bias remains. We know it. Whether you are black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or of Middle Eastern decent, we have all seen this bigotry in our own lives at some point. We heard it at times in our own homes.
“If we are honest, perhaps we have heard prejudice in our own heads and felt it in our own hearts. We know that. And while some suffer far more under racism’s burden, some feel, to a far greater extent, discrimination’s sting, although most of us do our best to guard against it and teach our children better, none of us is entirely innocent.”
Obama received flack for those words. Some listeners thought them ill suited to the tragedy being marked. Others heard in them an implied defense of a horrible murderous act.
There are surely some bases on which the President’s comments might be criticized. But I think his point was essentially correct.
Bias is a reality. And it’s a reality for all groups. He was surprisingly honest about that. In particular, his candid acknowledgment that prejudice exists among black people, while largely undernoted, was very much to his credit. Especially so, since the assertion that only whites can be racists is heard so frequently.
That conceit, held by some blacks (and lefty whites), represents a degree of self-deception equivalent to the recurring white illusion that I haven’t got a prejudiced bone in my body.
All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)
I think, however, that there’s a tendency to assume more bias in people’s hearts than may actually exist. For instance, what can look to black people like coldness or disdain or superiority on the part of whites is most often self-consciousness.
It’s true, as has been asserted quite a bit lately, that white folks find it hard to fully appreciate the indignities black folks have endured (and often continue to endure). As Evangelical commentator Michael Brown observed recently in Charisma News…
“Most whites really do not understand what it is like to grow up as a minority culture, and they cannot relate to the historic suffering of blacks in America, a history which is not as far in the distant past we would all like it to be.”
Yes. True enough. But don’t think for a minute we haven’t heard about it. Since at least the 1960s, the evils of slavery, cruel injustices of Jim Crow, and continuing discrimination attributed to what’s usually termed institutional racism have been dominant themes in news, politics, education, popular culture — all the channels of communication. We’ve been subjected to a steady stream (a torrent, really) of messages designed to raise awareness of, and promote sympathy for, the Black Experience.
And, by and large, it’s worked.
No denying there are bigoted whites. You can still hear racial slurs. But the casual nastiness once evident in the speech and behavior of earlier generations is now the exception. These days, most white people consider it inappropriate, vulgar, even déclassé — the province of neo-Nazis, uneducated louts, and the perpetually aggrieved.
Which explains our often-misinterpreted self-consciousness. The last thing a white person of goodwill wishes to be seen as is someone who maintains attitudes responsible for the black suffering we’ve heard so much about (hence our avoidance of those unpleasant feelings the President urged us to admit).
Has this positive change in white attitudes helped to improve the condition of blacks?
That’s a vexed question. But at the very least, it’s helped contain white resentment over seemingly endless efforts to equalize the relative positions of the races.
I’m thinking here of things like busing, affirmative action, targeted subsidies, minority business contracting preferences — programs that have gone on for decades and often place whites at a disadvantage.
And indeed, blacks have benefitted from such initiatives. This is undeniable, given the many black families that now rank among the middle class and even the wealthy.
Yet, after all these efforts and the significant progress achieved, there still remains considerable disparity between the races, most clearly seen in the persistent poverty of the black underclass (with its attendant crime, violence and family dissolution).
To most white people this unclosable gap remains a great mystery. And the explanation commonly given — racism — doesn’t seem to compute.
Who is being racist?
Who among white people is holding such a mass of black people down?
What might be attempted that has not already been tried?
What do black people want white people to do?
It’s all very perplexing. Because most whites know that they, as individuals, have never been in a position to impede black progress.
And while they understand that black people bear special burdens (the “driving while black” phenomenon comes to mind), most whites reject the idea of so-called white privilege. They know what privilege really is: It’s what the rich enjoy, and from which the rest of us (either black or white) will likely always be excluded.
I, myself, am typical. My forebears came over from Ukraine, Poland, England and Germany long after the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery. In this country they were miners, factory workers, and tradesmen with no power to exclude anybody from opportunities they themselves were often denied.
If you go back far enough, the ancestors on my father’s side — Slavs — were the people who gave slavery its very name when they themselves were enslaved by the Romans.
Most whites have a similar family story. Yet, we’ve all been tagged as guilty for black suffering. You can’t blame us for a certain amount of skepticism about that.
The source of most racial controversy in recent months has been police killings of black men. Most of the cases brought against cops (including black cops) have fallen apart, revealing that the police actions were unfortunate but justifiable.
That’s by no means true in all such instances. Some large questions remain unanswered (as with yesterday’s very peculiar shooting of a black behavioral therapist who was trying to help an autistic man). But the fact that cops have often been in the right is difficult for many people to accept.
This reflects a long history of distrust of the police in black communities where cops have been seen as agents of an oppressive white power structure, sometimes with good reason. The name Bull Connor still resonates.
“Black Lives Matter,” a slogan that emerged from the Ferguson, Missouri, shooting incident, is being pumped up into an international movement, subsidized by leftist billionaire George Soros, to exploit the grievances of minority populations around the world (a supportive demonstration was held recently in Australia).
To date, BLM’s principal accomplishment has been to prompt attacks on police officers in Dallas, Baton Rouge, New York, and other cities. It is rapidly morphing into a movement of urban terrorism. And there are hints that it may have connections with Islamist radicalism — inspirationally if not structurally.
Increased use of body cameras may help to avoid false impressions of police actions in the future. But if anti-police violence continues, the primary result will be still greater burdens on black people, as either of two consequences are seen (and probably both): Anxious police departments under fear for their officers will become more militarized (and the cops quicker to reach for their weapons), costing even more black lives. Or else, policing of black neighborhoods will become negligible, as officers avoid risk, thus causing crime rates to soar (which is happening already).
And where in all of this is brotherhood? Is it simply an unattainable ideal? Was it always just a pipedream?
I hope not.
I pray not.
Over the years we’ve heard calls for a great national conversation about race. The NCCJ conference I attended as a junior high school kid was an early effort.
Unfortunately, on those occasions when the thread of conversation is picked up — usually after some interracial tragedy — talk tends to get only as far as…
White people have done terrible things to black people, and black people are angry.
That’s not much of a conversation. It doesn’t begin to address the complexities of race relations in a multi-ethnic society where different groups have distinct historical experiences and economic interests.
Nor does it acknowledge the very real and substantial progress which has been made in a nation that once fought a civil war largely over the issue of slavery and now has a black President.
And it pretty much ignores the reality that many, many people — both blacks and whites — do reach out across racial lines, strive to keep their biases under control, treat each other with respect, and maintain charity in their hearts.
Call me naïve, but after all these years, I’m still pulling for brotherhood.
Note: The image at the top is currently circulating on Facebook. I don’t know its source, but it makes an important point in a simple graphic way. Another one (below) making the rounds illustrates support for the cops who are essential to life in black neighborhoods.
I have no doubt that there will be some readers shaking their heads over this essay — which they will see as the ignorant raving of a white guy who just doesn’t get it. Let me say that what you’ve read reflects a sincere effort to grasp the difficult moment to which our nation has come. If my perspective is limited by my skin color, that’s the human condition. I invite you — especially if you’re black — to please write in and honestly share your experiences. Perhaps we can start a genuine conversation.
I happened upon a Facebook post by a young black man named Brian Crooks in which he describes his own Black Experience — from growing up in majority-white Naperville, Illinois, to attending mostly all-white schools, to hurtful incidents with white friends, to overt racism, including some difficult interactions with police. The piece has “gone viral,” as they say, and for good reason, since it provides a number of very astute insights that would be valuable for whites to ponder. Here’s one…
“…people can be totally cool for years and years but suddenly decide that they need to be super racist because they want to hurt you. They’ll say they’re sorry, they’ll explain how you misinterpreted what they said, but the fact is, they reach for racism because they think it’ll emotionally and psychologically destroy you, and that’s what they want to do at that moment.”
Check it out at…
Here’s a link to Michael Brown’s Charisma News essay offering ten observations about current racial tensions, including this…
“There is far more that unites than divides us. We are, after all, one race, with each of us equally created in God’s image and equally loved by our Creator.”
Read his thoughts at…
Columnist Alicia Colon attributes much of the current strained atmosphere to intentional stoking of the fire by media. She has a point — one that’s supported by this incendiary image designed to promote a new movie about the famous Nat Turner slave revolt, titled “Birth of a Nation.” (No, it’s not a remake of the D.W. Griffith silent classic.) Take note that the Turner character is being hanged in an American flag.
“When celebrities quit making ignorant rants that fuel their fans’ anger; when the mainstream media reports the truth not a narrative that fits their ideology; and when the politicians stop making martyrs out of thugs; then maybe the hate will subside. Here’s hoping.”
Check her out on Jewish World Review…
The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan draws our attention to three black men — a senator, a surgeon, and a police chief — whose insights may help to save the country…
Brotherhood has always been a difficult ideal to uphold. Satirist Tom Lehrer captured that fact humorously in song, as preserved in this early-’60s television performance…