Almost every call for a conversation about race turns out to be a brief conversation about having a conversation about race. Remember the conversation about race which Obama wanted to initiate after Harvard Professor Henry Gates was apprehended while he struggled to open a jammed front door so that he could enter his Cambridge home? Obama called the incident a “teachable moment”; it passed, and no one taught or learned anything. Now we are summoned to another conversation on race because of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Why a conversation? What is it supposed to accomplish? Do we need a forum for white exculpations, black accusations, or mutual recriminations?
Who converses? Most whites do not and cannot. Instead, they deliver monologues about how free from racial prejudice they are, with inevitable claims that some of their best friends are blacks and long, tall tales of inter-racial experiences. Or, from liberal whites, contrite admissions about pervasive and persistent racism in all (other?) whites. And from conservative whites, diatribes about undue attention to racism which, they say, disappeared because of the progress made to eliminate it over the past half century.
Most blacks do not and cannot. Almost universally, they are condescendingly or contemptuously gentle toward dumb- or sorry-assed whites or explosively angry in attacking or blaming them for their racism, which they believe is the root cause of all their problems, the effects of which are entirely a white responsibility. White liberals flinch, white conservatives resist, and blacks condemn them both. Everyone leaves such conservations, if you want to thus call them, more riled up and more confirmed in their positions than they had been when they arrived.
I am going to proceed in an unconventional manner. I begin by asserting the absolute rights of racists in American to be racist. Moreover, like the rest of us, they have freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion; so racists have the very same Constitutional rights to speak and publish as they believe as the rest of us do. If they are rude, crude, and socially unacceptable, and their views are offensive and politically incorrect, both they and their views have every right to be so. I hate hate speech, but I also hate laws and regulations against hate speech; they are anti- and un-Constitutional no matter how one tries to slice and dice them otherwise.
I do not feel superior to self-declared racists because of what I suspect are their personal problems, deficiencies for which a sense of personal superiority and group solidarity inherent in racism compensates. I do feel superior to them when they talk about preserving white culture, for I readily imagine what a one-hour essay on a Shakespeare play would produce: a blank page or incoherent drivel. Still, I respect them as people entitled to fair and civil treatment.
I have less respect for those whites, liberals and conservatives alike, who have built walls of denial around themselves which enable socially approved pretenses and avoid personal responsibility for their racist attitudes and beliefs. White hypocrisy is racist and subsidizes racism.
In 2005 or thereabout, my wife and I lived in Ashland, OR, a virtually all-white town which its academic immigrants from multi-racial Berkeley and Oakland tout for its—and, by implication, their—openness to diversity. My wife’s church’s outreach committee designated me, in my absence from a meeting, its representative to an intergroup colloquy on diversity. The featured attraction was the showing of the 1994 documentary “The Color of Fear.” Four pairs of men—black, white, Hispanic, Asian—discuss racism. One of the white men runs a farm which employs many Hispanic workers; accused of being a racist, he protests that he is nothing of the sort because he pays his workers a good wage and treats them fairly, yada, yada, yada. This Californian is the mark, the epitome of white racism in its genial, naïve form. One of the black men is an urban resident wise in the ways of the street. As the foil to this unconscious racist, he is the epitome of the authentic black experience in America. As the discussion proceeds, he is almost imperceptibly agitated; finally, he erupts in anger at the farmer and whites like those at the tables of colloquy attendees. I could feel everyone at my table recoiling from the fury of his anger.
When the film ended and the lights went on, attendees were supposed to discuss their responses. Everyone at my table turned to me probably because I was known for my outspoken letters on hot-button issues to the editor of the local daily. I said that I would rather speak after others had spoken; everyone expressed the same response: shock at this black man’s anger. I could sense them bracing themselves when it was my turn. My message was a blunt one: if they did not understand this black man’s anger, they had shielded themselves from knowing about and understanding black anger. As West Coast residents, they had ignored the readily available evidence of black anger: the Watts Riots in 1965, the many urban riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, the Los Angeles riots after the beating of Rodney King in 1992. Their ignorance, even if it was not actually denial, demonstrated their indifference to blacks and their plight, as manifested in boycotts, demonstrations, marches, protests, and riots over a 40-year period. I said that this indifference reflected their racism whether or not they acknowledged it to themselves or others. No one spoke up; I had killed the conversation, probably for the best.
Forty years earlier, my small part in a brief exchange promoted conversations and reconciliation between black and white roommates. In the late spring, early summer of 1964—just after white racists had killed three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi—I was a commissioned officer receiving basic training at Ft. Benning, GA. The training group was a mix of several dozen officers, mostly Southerners, half white, half black, with a few northerners like me to make the class full. Among my friends was Bob Harris, a sprinter at Florida A&M, one step slower than Bob Hayes, who went on to become an Olympic gold medalist and all-pro receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. Bob had been the chapter president of the Lakeland, Florida, chapter of the NAACP, and he told me fascinating stories about the folkways of integration in his town.
Midway through the two-month training class, Bob came storming up to me and yelling that he was going to “kill” his roommate, a white man from rural Arkansas who had not spoken a word to Bob even in reply to “good morning” or “good evening,” for four weeks. I looked at Bob and said, “don’t be a nigger.” Bob, stunned by my directing the word at him, stopped cold and stared at me, not certain how to react. I explained that that is exactly what he would appear to be in his roommate’s eyes if he did anything aggressive in response to his roommate’s rudeness, that he would fulfill his roommate’s expectations, that he would demean himself by responding in such an unworthy way. Bob immediately recovered; he understood and agreed, and accepted my counsel just to continue doing as he had being doing, acting with civility and dignity.
Two nights before we graduated, Bob came to me with an interesting report. Shortly after this discussion, his roommate had started responding to greetings, acting friendlier, and then talking at some length about this or that. The night before, his roommate told Bob that, if he were nearby, he would be welcome at his home. Bob asked me whether I thought the invitation was sincere. I said that I thought that it was; his roommate did not have to make it. I added, however, that, if he ever accepted it, his roommate was going to have some work to do with his parents. We laughed.
But the most interesting conversation was one which I observed. In the fall of 1964, my mother had a party for the twenty or so international students at Case Western Reserve University, as racially diverse group which I have ever seen. I was home on leave before departing for a Vietnam-bound unit then in Kansas. The other family member attending was my 84-year-old grandmother, the last flower of the Victorian Era. I am sure that her cultural and social background shaped her to be a racist. Yet the moment etched upon my memory is of her sitting on a sofa and talking amiably with a “shiny black”—as the phrase was for the darkest of hues—24-year old engineering student from Jamaica. I am sure that her cultural and social background also shaped her behavior as well. “Nono”—as the firstborn on both sides of my family, I named the grandparents—would no sooner have been in any way impolite than she would have been improperly dressed, with, say, her strands of pearls twisted or her slip showing. A lady behaved in a civil manner as a matter of personal dignity and respect for others, regardless of personal convictions or public circumstances. I chuckle to think that, if someone had told her 25 years earlier that she would be in such a situation in her daughter-in-law’s house, she would have had that someone committed. Even people with racist promptings can behave well if they chose self-respect and a code of conduct which demands and brings out the best in them.
All three stories narrate communications, if not conversations, involving race. They are vastly different from the kinds of conversations ballyhooed by officials or the media. But I think that they illustrate or imply a lot of relevant points. Many whites—and, yes, many blacks—are racist in their deliberate lack of interest in, or knowledge about, others unlike themselves; and in their lack of moral imagination about who those “others” are. If whites and blacks can overcome both their social reluctance to talk to strangers and their racial prejudices which compound that reluctance, they can find mutual interests, even in their differences; think of such relationships as a real-life story, like a good book about people in other times and places. Finally, even if people are racist, they can still conduct themselves in ways in accord with the higher moral and social values which they are taught at home or in school or in church, temple, or mosque.
So, as I began, I have no wish to restrict or even to reform racists because of their attitudes or beliefs. My only concern is manifestations of racism which have materially adverse effects upon the targets of their bigotry. If racists, black or white, give offense, they should be deplored or ignored. If they diminish civility and amiability among peoples, they should be criticized and ostracized. If they act abusively, they should be adjudged by the laws for abusive action.
Whether or not we have a conversation about race and race relationships—most people lack the fortitude to have one or to be forthright in it—we do have to give ourselves a good talking to. Soliloquies are not conversations, but they can be rehearsals for them. Now about that paper on a Shakespeare play.