The Conversation on Race

There have been a lot of calls for a “Conversation on Race in America” over the last few days. You hear that a lot every time a new racist event hits the headlines. But as someone who has been participating in the “Conversation” for most of my life, I know from experience that no one really wants to have a serious conversation – because no one really wants to hear or tell the truth.

But for the sake of the those who still don’t know, let me encapsulate the basics of the “Conversation on Race in America.” From the African American side of the table, they want White People to understand how incredibly difficult it is for African Americans to pull themselves out of poverty, and how dehumanizing and helpless it feels for a Black child to come to the realization that he or she is probably going live out his or her entire life in that condition. They want White People to understand that becoming a gang banger, living a life of crime or becoming the mother of multiple children with multiple fathers is a byproduct of that hopelessness. They want White People to understand how humiliating it is to be watched from the time you enter a store to the time you leave simply because you are Black, and they want White People to understand how outrageous it is and the rage they feel inside when a police officer unjustly questions them, just because they are Black. They want White People to understand that when they see George Floyd lying on the ground begging for his life, they see themselves begging for theirs.

From the White side of the table, they want to know why after sixty years of increasingly generous Progressive social programs and affirmative action, the social and economic health of the African American community has gotten worse instead of better. They want to know why so many African American men show such disrespect for women and the children they create. They want to know why African Americans don’t stop the adoration of gangs, crime and violence, when they are the disproportionate victims of it. They want to know why African Americans talk about “Reparations” when there is no reasonable way to implement it. They want to know why police officers routinely put their lives on the line to protect African Americans, and still African Americans refuse to help or even cooperate with them. And they want to know why even though so much as been done for African Americans, they don’t do more for themselves.

A “Conversation” requires both sides at the table to be heard. That’s not happening, because neither side is really ready to hear the other. Why? In part, because this is an incredibly complicated problem that has its roots in 246 years of slavery, a horrific civil war and 156 years of discrimination, economic torment, death and suffering. Both sides are horribly frustrated, and now political parties, looking for an opportunity, have made an already difficult debate impossible. The bottom-line, when one side of the table can’t say what they really think, because they are immediately labeled a racist, the “Conversation” is over.

The truth is, when one side of the political divide or the other, politicizes race, religion, sex or any other condition of humanity that naturally divides us, it fuels the fires that consume our democracy and everyone in it. Our communities are on fire because we have allowed politics to set them.

A final word to my little socially conscious friends, who have been guided by their rage over racial injustice to throw bricks and fire bombs through the windows of African American owned businesses, homes and automobiles, while they prattled on about their White privilege and then go home to sleep in their parents’ basements in the suburbs. You’re idiots. You’ve done irreparable harm, and you should be ashamed.

Many of us, Black and White, who have attempted to have this “Conversation” over the years have learned a great deal about each other and the problem. We are genuine friends, and in the last few days, we’ve largely been on the same page. What happened to George Floyd was unconscionable. The peaceful protests and indignation were good and proper, but the rioting that followed was despicable. It served no purpose other than to give back ground that had been gained over many years of hard work.

I’m reminded of something said about John McClendon, the first African American coach to win a national sports title and a powerful voice in civil rights. An historian and close friend of his said, “Dr. King and Malcolm X were undeniably important in our march to equality, but it was guys like John McClendon, reassuring their white friends that everything would be alright, that really made the difference.”

That quote, better than any I’ve ever heard, explains the truth about what it takes to make great strides in social progress. Shouting and protest is all well and good to get people to notice, but reason, compassion and kindness are the qualities that eventually lead to real change. Why don’t we start a new “Conversation” by just being polite to one another?


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