In the wake of Obama’s presidency, I’ve been ruminating on that great big nuclear bomb of politics, race. Before I give you my personal views on race and racism in this country, here’s a snapshot of where we are today.
The media has done Black Lives Matter to death, as well as professional athletes and celebrities who decry the current state of race relations in this country. They are pieces of the puzzle, but they are not the whole
On one hand, we have Professor Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown University, who recently published the book, “The Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.” A professor delivering a sermon to a large segment of America… What a concept. He is a black man who clearly views everything through the lens of race in this country. I find this view to be limiting, much as I do whenever I meet a blind person who judges every issue they come across through the prism of his/her blindness.
After preaching to white America in his book, Professor Dyson suggests some possible solutions that white folks can adopt in their personal lives in an effort to combat their inherent and latent racism. One of these strategies is what the good professor terms, personal reparations. That is white people donating money to the United Negro College Fund, or other charities geared toward African-Americans.
When I hear suggestions like that, my political spidey sense starts tingling. What I hear is, give us money. I am a big fan of many charities out there and I believe very strongly that people should give of their time and money to those who are less fortunate. So, I tell you what. Find me a charity that supports philosophy in the mold of Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas and Walter Williams and I will happily donate.
My issue with Professor Dyson’s book is his premise. He seems to believe that white America is the sole source of the problem. When I hear diatribes such as his, I notice a decided lack of interest in looking inward.
Several years ago, I read a book by Juan Williams called, “Enough: the phony leaders, dead-end movements, and culture of failure that are undermining Black America– and what we can do about it.” It was one of the most enlightening books I have ever read. In short, Williams spring-boarded off of remarks made by Bill Cosby at a 2004 meeting of the NAACP in which Cosby took members of his own community to task for behavior that he felt sabotaged their march toward equality.
Sadly, recent revelations about Cosby’s alleged sexual misconduct toward women in his private life have nullified any credibility he may have had on the issue. But Williams’ credibility is still intact, save for the fact that he works for Fox News. Many blacks would call him an Uncle Tom, conveniently ignoring the fact that he has written many books about the civil rights struggle and the continued plight of the African-American community in this country.
All I can do is heartily recommend that everyone (black, white, brown or yellow) read this book.
On the other side of the fence, we have Sally Boynton Brown, current member of the Idaho Democrat Party and candidate for the position of chairperson of the National Democratic Committee. At a debate the other night, she was responding to a question about Black Lives Matter when she said the following:
“White leaders in our party have failed. We have to accept that we have prejudice within our own party.”
She went on to say:
“My job is to listen to the issues. My job is also to shut white people down when they wanna interrupt. My job is to shut other white people down when they say oh no I’m not prejudice. I’m a Democrat.”
So far, so good. She appears to be doing what I’ve done for years; calling out liberals for the unrecognized bigotry they all carry concealed beneath their cloak of sanctimony. But she doesn’t stop there. A few minutes later, her meaning becomes more crystallized when she addresses the training of new Democrat party operatives:
“We need to teach them how to communicate, how to be sensitive and how to shut their mouths if they’re white.”
I am not taking these remarks out of context. The video is widely available on YouTube and you can see her remarks in full. Despite her protestations to the contrary, she is clearly a politician who is preening and pandering to a segment of voters. Her tone of voice is nothing less than unctuous as she speaks of white privilege and, “People of color.” Frankly, if I were a minority under the banner of the Democrat Party, I would be insulted. And, most important of all, she is not calling for a conversation. A dialogue consists of a reciprocal communication between two or more parties. White people shutting their mouths would result in a monologue; a one-sided communication.
You can draw a causal line from Boynton Brown’s remarks back to those of Attorney General Eric Holder in February of 2009. In his first speech after assuming office, he delivered remarks at the Department of Justice African-American History Program. Here is an excerpt from said remarks:
“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation’s history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.”
I was skeptical when I heard about Holder’s speech. It’s been my experience that, when those of the left use the word, “conversation,” in a socio/political context, they usually mean the exact opposite. A dialogue with a liberal usually transforms into a monologue, with a good deal of imperious finger-wagging in the faces of those who disagree.
When I read the speech in full, I had the benefit of hindsight. Holder’s track record on racial issues prove that my skepticism was well-founded. The best example was his refusal to prosecute members of the New Black Panther Party for their blatant voter intimidation tactics at a polling site in Philadelphia during the 2008 election. The underlying sentiment from many DOJ officials that came out during the ensuing investigation was that the Voting Section of the DOJ wasn’t in the business of prosecuting minorities; ergo, whites have no civil rights worth violating.
I think that Sally Boynton Brown was probably saying the things that Eric Holder was thinking, but was too smart to say. She strikes me as the Sarah Palin type; speak first and think later. The only thing I liked about her remarks was her candor.
Unfortunately, history has taught us that when you live in a country which espouses free speech, and when you tell a segment of the population to shut up, there are consequences. For blacks, said consequences came in the form of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King. For women, they were embodied in Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Over the past eight years, where racial matters are concerned, white people (particularly conservatives) have been made to feel that, when the subject of race comes up, they should just shut up, smile and nod respectfully and take whatever the other side is dishing out. If they should ask questions or argue, they are then labeled as obtuse bigots.
So what did liberals get for their high-handed attitudes? Donald Trump!
According to Professor Dyson, the only reason Trump won was because of race. This is a simplistic view. Trump won for many reasons, not the least of which were economics. However, I do believe that he flipped a lot of people who are tired of feeling bullied because he addressed certain issues from his self-made bully pulpit that rendered him impervious to the usual charges of racism and bigotry that are routinely hurled against any and all Republican candidates. This is unfortunate. Trump’s brand of candor will be too boorish to result in any kind of substantive racial dialogue. But then, Obama was quite articulate, wasn’t he? Obama was supposed to be the first post-racial president, and things are far more polarized today than they were when he took office.
Sadly, when one extreme gains traction in society, other extremes also gain traction in an attempt to push back. I don’t think it’s a stretch for me to see a cause-and-effect line between Eric Holder and the legitimization of certain members of the Alt-Right such as Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer.
How does race affect me personally? That’s a tough question. I grew up in a whitebread town in the middle of Nebraska. I knew of three black people growing up who were local residents. One of them went to high school with me, but we seldom spoke.
I became more aware of the black culture in college in the ‘90’s. The rendering of the O.J. verdict in 1995 high-lighted the disparity in viewpoints between blacks and whites. When the verdict was broadcast, I sulked in my dorm room, while a group of black students loudly celebrated across the hall. The contrast was very stark.
Sidebar: I intended to blog about the recent O.J. miniseries after watching it, but that project is still on the back burner. Probably because I’m a flamin’ racist.
When I worked at Gallup, I felt at ease while conversing with black and Hispanic employees. One of them was named Tim, who was an ex con. I remember him as a gentle soul who was very polite and friendly to all, including those respondents who abused him on the phones. There was no trace of the stereotypical, “angry black man.”
I met several African-American members of the National Federation of the Blind when I became active in the Nebraska affiliate. Later, when I moved to Denver, I met many more people of varying races and backgrounds. I never felt nervous or out of place.
In 2009, I left a lousy job working for a couple of reprobates who were white. I immediately found a new job working for a black couple. They showed me kindness and warmth while I was in their employ and, unlike my previous employers, they always treated me fairly. We’ve sort of lost touch, but I remember them fondly.
In 2014, I worked for an orientation center for the blind as a summer counselor. My duties included serving as apartment babysitter for three of our male students. Two of them were Hispanic. I don’t remember any racial tension arising from our interactions. Quite the contrary. I enjoyed hearing their music, sampling their cuisine and hearing about their backgrounds. In that same program, we had seven or eight Hispanic students in total, plus one African-American, two students from China and one from Thailand.
I also had one African-American coworker, two Hispanic coworkers, one Ukrainian and one who was Asian. Honestly, the staff didn’t always get along. Some of the staff meetings we held got pretty contentious. But that was due more to issues of personality and ego, rather than race or ethnicity.
Did my students and I have frank conversations about race? No. I was their counselor. They never brought it up and I wasn’t going to force the issue. I learned more just by listening as they occasionally talked about their families in Mexico. I didn’t stay quiet out of intimidation, but because I was learning. Would I have conversations with them about race today? Sure, as long as it was a true dialogue.
I don’t think I’m a racist. I really try my best to take people as I find them, regardless of what political or social narrative larger forces try to spin around them. If I met a woman of a different race and fell in love with her, I wouldn’t acknowledge any racial barriers. I would gladly break bread with those of other races on any social occasion as long as I was welcome. Of course, my saying that I’m not a racist doesn’t make it so. Richard Spencer probably doesn’t think he’s a racist either. Some pundits would argue that I am racist merely because I’m white and therefore benefit from white privilege. I flip such people the bird. I know my own mind and heart and try my best to let my daily conduct speak for itself.
How do we solve the racial polarization that has left our country fractured? My answer is, we don’t.
I’m not being defeatist. I believe that racism and tribalism will always be a part of the human condition. I believe that it is a tragic flaw that is inherent to our species. Tribalism has existed for thousands of years and I don’t see any signs that it will get better. The 20th century has seen the advancement of mass communications with the advent of the telephone, the radio, the television and the internet. Yet, rather than bringing us closer together, we seem further apart in many respects.
Does that mean we simply wallow in the muck of racism and racial politics? Hell no! I don’t believe we can simply flip a switch and make prejudice disappear. All we can do as individuals is to make our own corner of the world a little better.
How do we do this? It starts with Eric Holder’s speech, which may contain more kernels of truth than he meant for it to. We start by holding frank conversations with those of other races about our situation. I emphasize the word, conversation; a two-way dialogue. We also start socializing with each other more. Think of that cheesy yet effective scene at the end of the movie, “A Time to Kill,” when the black kids and the white kids are playing together. I think this reality already exists to a point, but it’s obviously not yet large enough to eclipse the angry drumbeat of media and professional race agitators who cling to a more convenient and self-serving narrative.
Sidebar: That heart-warming, climactic moment at the end of the movie was pure Hollywood. The original Grisham novel did not contain such a scene. “A Time to Kill,” is the only Grisham story that I enjoyed. The movie is a mostly faithful knock-off of the book. Samuel L. Jackson’s, “You one of the bad guys, Jake!” speech echoes the sentiments of Professor Dyson.
Yes, by all means, let’s have a chat about race. But why stop there. I honestly think that if most people of divergent races really got together, they’d figure out they have more in common than not. Why not talk about the NFL, NBA, food, clothes, Jay Z or Chris LeDoux? Remember his song, “This cowboy’s Hat?” How about a cowboy hat summit across the nation? I didn’t vote for Obama in either election and I didn’t support his agenda, but he and I could talk about The Wire or Al Green if we ever clink beer mugs.
The problem with this approach is that it’s too slow. We now live in an instant gratification culture. It has become too commonplace for people of all ages and of all political stripes to look to their government for quick fixes. They want a leader to come along and wave some magic wand that will make all of the ugliness of humanity disappear. This is why the left loved Obama. They thought he was a transformative figure. Many on the right see Trump in the same way, though I believe that our camp is a bit more divided.
There is no cure-all law or policy that can bridge the gap. Brown vs. Board of Education was a righteous decision, but it doesn’t change hearts and minds. Neither did LBJ’s Great Society, affirmative action or bussing.
No politician, activist or spiritual figure has all the answers. It’s no coincidence that when the followers of a leader realize that very basic truth, said leader loses popularity with his or her flock.
With respect to President Obama, if he was supposed to be the first post-racial leader, he fell down in spectacular fashion. If Obamacare was his signature issue during his first term, then race should’ve been the corner stone of his second. Maybe my memory is bad, but I only remember him speaking in a reactionary, rather than a proactive fashion. The 2009 Beer Summit was a good start, but as it turned out, it was a false start.
When the incident with Trayvon martin occurred in 2012, he had plenty to say, but there was no follow-up. He certainly had plenty to say after Ferguson, Baltimore, New York City and Baton Rouge, but his attitude at his press conferences and his approach to the issue seemed detached. By any yardstick of success I can apply to these various situations, Obama’s policy on racial healing in America was an abject failure.
Trump isn’t going to be any better. Hell, he might even be worse. As I write this, he’s penned an executive order to build a wall. This will only inflame the immigrant communities. As for domestic relations, I don’t see Trump holding any kind of a beer summit with Al Sharpton or the heads of Black lives Matter. He’s just not built that way.
If a forward-thinking president really wants to start a meaningful conversation about race, he/she needs to conduct a national beer summit. The president needs to initiate a multi-city tour. The tour needs to visit locations as diverse as the inner cities of Boston (the most segregated city in the country), as well as Baltimore, D.C., Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, Phoenix, Philadelphia, etc. Let me stress that these tours will have to be held in the inner cities; I don’t care if the president has to triple his/her Secret Service detail.
The tour will also have to visit cities like Lincoln, Nebraska, Colorado Springs, El Paso, Montgomery, Salt Lake City and even Boise, Idaho. Secret Service can bring along electrical tape in case Ms. Boynton Brown forgets to keep her mouth shut.
The tour would include, not just the president, but a diverse group of speakers who would join in the conversation. And not just racially diverse, but politically diverse as well. Possible suggestions for the panel would include Professor Dyson, Juan Williams, Condoleezza Rice, Bill Kristol, Colin Powell, Mia Love, Congressman John Lewis and many more. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would not be welcome. Local police reps and church members would be encouraged to attend, but the primary focus would be everyday citizens who were interested in a cross-racial dialogue.
Skeptics would call it political theater and charge the president with symbolism over substance. So what? They would do that anyway. But who better to start a national conversation than the president? I don’t know where said dialogue would lead, but if it helped the races to meet on an individual level, wouldn’t it be worth it?
Sidebar: People would assume that a black or Hispanic president would have to take the initiative. Why? If Ben Sasse ever took the White House, I could envision him doing something like this. Wouldn’t a white man benefit greatly from such an endeavor?
In the meantime, I fear that things will only get worse before they get better. History demonstrates that our instincts of tribalism will trump our better nature. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am. All we can do in the interim is wrestle with those inherent tendencies toward prejudice that we all hold within ourselves and push back against bigotry when we encounter it in our own lives. Tall order, but very possible.