How Do We Talk About Race in America? (Part 1 of 2)

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Photo credit: Circle Hands Teamwork, Pixabay

“Being a human being is a really hard job.”

I heard this comment from the neurologist who treats me for migraines—a prominent researcher and a wonderful, compassionate man. He was quoting an observation that his mother often made when he was growing up.  “I didn’t realize how wise she was when I was young,” he told me, but over the years, his mother’s words have come to resonate. Fortunately for me and his other patients, they appear to form part of the empathy that makes him both an exceptional physician and a lovely person.

“Forget about race; it’s hard enough just to be a human being.” During the same week that my neurologist repeated his mother’s words, I heard a white comedian quoting Richard Pryor, the brilliant African-American comedian and social commentator who died in 2005.

At first I was struck by the similarity of the sentiments. But then I thought: Did Richard Pryor, who was a pioneer in speaking truth to audiences black and white about the burdens of racism, really say “forget about race”? So I did a little research.

I found a clip of “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982).” Those who don’t mind his customary raw language can watch him on Youtube. Pryor did say, “It’s hard enough being a human being, decent, as a person.” But he preceded that with the words “Racism is a bitch” that screws up everybody but really takes its toll on black people. He then gave an example, and added the plaintive words, “This is a ugly thing and I hope some day they give it up.”

The fact that the white comedian could have recalled Pryor saying “forget about race” when Pryor’s entire point was about race told me a lot about our cultural chasms.

I will acknowledge that I’m probably showing some arrogance and/or naivete in thinking I can address such a vast and important topic in my little blog. But like many of my white friends, I feel there aren’t enough white voices decrying the worsening racial tenor of our times—from the comments and policies being pushed out by the leaders of our government to the documented rise in hate crimes. 

To be sure, we’ve seen rising violence against Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and gay people as well—and all of this must be resoundingly denounced as intolerable and un-American by both public officials and people like us, using many different approaches. 

But the black experience in America is unique from its roots, so I’m using the platform I have to focus on it, believing that some of what we’ll explore will be applicable to others suffering from prejudice as well—as we strive to find common ground. 

I don’t feel equipped to cover the hate-mongers here, but I know we have to talk about them as a society, and I think they’ll find less fertile ground if more of us are “woke” (to use the current jargon) to the ways that racism rears its ugly head in our daily lives. 

My efforts are intended to reinforce our abilities to listen to one another and empathize with each other. “Walking in the other person’s shoes” may be a bit trite, but I find it appropriate. If enough of us can do this, we can make life less tense and more pleasant for us all. Perhaps, just perhaps, we can help the hate-mongers crawl back into the fringes of our society from whence they came.

I’m well aware that as a white woman, I can’t begin to know what it’s like for people of color to simply go about their lives each day, suffering indignities at the very least and fearing for their safety at worst.

But as a human being, I find Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests against police violence in the very finest traditions of our democracy, and I weep with the mothers whose unarmed sons’ lives have been lost due to the actions of those police officers who, due to inadequate training, or temperament, or fear, or prejudices—or a combination thereof—led them to hasty acts with dreadful consequences.  

I have trouble understanding why the phrase “Black Lives Matter” isn’t viewed as an obvious plea for correction of a grave injustice, and instead evokes the defensive response: “All lives matter.” Well, of course, all lives matter, and if the larger society were acting as if they took that expression to heart, there would be no need for “Black Lives Matter.”

If all lives mattered, we wouldn’t have just seen the gerrymandered districts and numerous schemes to prevent people of color from voting, purportedly to rein in a voter fraud epidemic that has been repeatedly found to be essentially nonexistent.

And, if our Founding Fathers had believed that all lives mattered, would our nation have been established with an economic system that depended upon the enslavement of black people? Perhaps there never would have been the original sin of slavery, which continues to haunt our society to this day. 

I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, We Were Eight Years in Power, which is eye-opening. The book is a collection of Coates’s essays in The Atlantic, written during the Obama years, with each original essay preceded by a more recent assessment in which he is at times self-critical, at times reevaluating based on new evidence or new ideas. 

In its entirety, it’s a strong, analytical look–sometimes compassionate, often unforgiving–at our nation’s history and the lingering impact of white supremacy. Introducing the clever history-spanning title, Coates opens with a speech that South Carolina Congressman Thomas Miller made to his state’s constitutional convention in 1895, two decades after the end of Reconstruction.

“We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity.”

But Miller’s attempt to show that African-Americans’ citizenship should be protected went unheeded. Their disenfranchisement was well under way, followed by horrific physical violence against them to reinstate white supremacy.

Coates calls the eight years of Obama’s Presidency “a period of Good Negro Government.” He writes:

“Obama was elected amid widespread panic and…emerged as a caretaker and measured architect. He established the framework of a national healthcare system from a conservative model. He prevented an economic collapse…His family—the charming and beautiful wife, the lovely daughters, the dogs—seemed pulled from the Brooks Brothers catalogue…He was deliberate to a fault, saw himself as the keeper of his country’s sacred legacy, and if he was bothered by his country’s sins, he ultimately believed it to be a force for good in the world. 

“In short, Obama, his family, and his administration were a walking advertisement for the case with which black people could be fully integrated into the unthreatening mainstream of American culture, politics, and myth.

“And that was always the problem.”

To Coates, the “old fear of Good Negro Government” was a significant factor in the rise of Donald Trump, who used the symbols of racism in his campaign, and does so today. Coates’s arguments are too complex and layered for me to pursue here, but along the way, he offers a great deal of the history that has shaped our society. 

For example, I hadn’t known that in order to get passage of the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt acceded to the demands of Southern senators that African Americans should not be eligible for the benefits of the New Deal. Many such decisions and legislation have had ramifications that continue today.

In discussing President Obama, whose optimism about America he admires but can’t fully share, Coates points out the differences in their upbringing: Coates’s formative years were in a largely segregated area; Obama’s being raised by loving and accepting white grandparents in Kansas and Hawaii made him far more positive about what America could be.

How do we talk about race in America? 

This is a tough subject, and I obviously have far more questions than answers. I do know that I feel a strong need for more knowledge of the relevant history. Books written by contemporary authors, like Coates’s and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which describes the Great Migration, help serve as guides. 

In addition, in Part Two on this topic, I’ll introduce you to a man whose childhood in an integrated community and nurturing by white mentors make his approach to race and the adversities he’s faced more similar to Obama’s than to Coates’s. To me, he embodies the promise of effective racial communication and reconciliation.

Please join me in this dialogue by contributing your own thoughts, suggestions, and stories. And please—if you like what I’m doing here—avail yourself of the stars or “like” button to let me know.

Annie

 

36 thoughts on “How Do We Talk About Race in America? (Part 1 of 2)

    1. Hi, Susie–

      Thanks so much for your kind words. Have you had any experiences you’d care to share, perhaps with community dialogues that you felt were beneficial? Or revelations from discussions within the artistic community, where people might be more open about their experiences?

      Annie

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Hi Annie,
    Your usual well thought out, researched and written posting. Look forward to Part 2.
    Of the groups you mentioned that have been targeted and discriminated against (Jews, Muslims, et al) please let’s not overlook the Native Americans.
    Their long history of abuse by our gov’t and people, while not in many headlines today, can’t be ignored.
    I realize, Annie, that this topic isn’t directly the subject of this present blog. Maybe another time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, donthedoctor–

      Thank you for your encouraging words, and a special thanks for enriching the dialogue by adding Native Americans to the list of those abused, as you point out, “by our gov’t and people.” The one bit of optimism (I’m always looking for those glimmers of hope) is the recent election of the first two Native Americans to Congress (both women): Sharice Davids in Kansas and Deb Haaland in New Mexico. There is, of course, the irony that Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson observed: we’re talking about these two “firsts” of people whose heritage actually makes them the “first Americans.” So it certainly is about time! Our country will surely benefit by having their perspectives in “the people’s House.”

      Annie

      Liked by 2 people

  2. How do we talk about race? I really don’t know. Race is often time only relevant when it serves a purpose for a particular agenda. The larger society it would appear does not care about blacks. Why do I say that? Look at the outright atrocities over the last 400-500 years. Why is it continuing to present day? If we mattered, these crimes against us would have stopped.

    Media perpetuates hate against our community in the name of viewership. We are portrayed as less than, no matter what new standards are put in place to counteract those images.

    African beauty standards are shown as animalistic. There is a case of a museum in asia where black images were set up alongside animals and people showed up, mind you. It wasn’t taken down and the museum put out of business. No, people continued to go and the numbers were shamefully high.

    Images of the president Obama and his wife as animals and her image as the butt of jokes, depicting her in the most cruel ways, why? Because she was black?

    We can’t bring up slavery not reputation to anyone because the first thing anyone says is that was hundreds of. years ago

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well hundreds of years ago equates to modern day experiences for many of us. Plus we live the lives of our recent ancestors who suffered the in humanities. How do we forget when we’ve never been allowed to forget? Not has our sufferings been justified or properly acknowledged outside if our community as an injustice.

      The black community continues to be blamed for all the negatives and wrongs/ills of our culture in the diaspora. There is no acknowledging in the psychosis of the wrong doers that we are individuals, human, emotional and intellectual just like everyone else.

      We continually have to raise above to show relevance. Look at awards shows, politics, beauty standards in any area, schools and how str children are perceived. It goes on and on. So yes, we can talk but there is much to discuss and it effects the diaspora of Africans

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am so grateful to you for sharing your perspective on this important topic, and I hope that your reblogging my post will bring additional insights. I do know from following your blog that you and I share what may sometimes be a “determined” optimism about life. I am hopeful that the growing diversity in our country and the greater enlightenment of many members of the younger generation will move us closer to “e pluribus unum” in the near future.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am optimistic and I mentor others in the hopes the too do not give up hope. Reality is reality however and the younger generation in the black Communities are very disappointed in America. They do not see out of many one. They see a culture borne of superiority bent on suppressing and annihalating others if they do not bend to their will. It’s sad but that’s what is happening today

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      1. Bless you for your mentoring, and it’s tragic that your mentees’ views are reality-based. I hope, though, that they don’t turn away from voting. There were some very promising victories and near-victories in this recent election (Stacey Abrams, for example, has a shining future that will help us all, I believe.) I know it’s easier to say this from my vantage point, but I still believe most Americans want a fairer, more decent society where we respect one another and cooperate with one another.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. In order to effect change we have to be in position of financial strength. Voting to many of us is just a ritual. The government is corrupt and the votes are used strategically against us oftentimes. I have to say Americans in your circle perhaps? People tend to travel in circles of like minded individuals but when you step outside of that circle you would be ashamed of America

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I’m saddened that my talking about voting seems to have led you to draw conclusions about me and my “circles.” I have no intention of defending myself by giving you a litany of my efforts to enhance social justice. But I would welcome your views on how WE can make the necessary changes in society–how do you get to the position of financial strength if you negate the political process? Sure it’s highly flawed, and there’s plenty of corruption (everywhere, I might add), and right now the powers that be are scarier than ever before in my lifetime. But as you’re an optimist, you must see a path forward, and I’d very much like to know your vision.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I reread our previous exchanges because I was startled by your reference to me and my “circles.” I realized that my response to your preceding heartfelt description did not reflect the degree of empathy and “walking in the other’s shoes” that I stress in my post and try to live by, and I regret that.

        If you’re willing, I would like to further pursue whether we can find agreement on the path forward. I’d like to know more about your ideas of change through financial strength, and though I do understand that your views on voting are based on historical precedents, I’d like to discuss this issue further.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Always open to dialogue and very respectful of your view(s) whether I agree or not. No worries, but I appreciate the reply back. Just know it’s difficult for me to take offense at most exchanges due to like you said, reading between the lines and also most importantly for me, knowing myself.

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      6. In regards to voting, while many if us are no longer ”excited” by the right to vote, we do respect if and will maintain it. However, the vote can also be used against us. Too many times there are wolves in sheep clothing and too many times the agendas are not targeted to enrich the black community, financially, spiritually or otherwise. These types of playing with the black vote has to stop.

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  4. Ann, I am not exactly sure how to approach this subject. Of course I can talk about race, racism and all of the other poisons we consume as society and then spew as if it is the magical elixir of truth and survival. I can revisit our original sin of institutional racism where a large group of colonies soon to become states of a union, based their entire economy on ‘African people were inferior to white people’. Even when the imported slaves from Africa were largely converted to a new religion that was routed in Christianity and its namesake, these millions of slaves and their offspring generation after generation, were treated for over a hundred years before the constitution and another 75 till the civil war, as inferior in almost every way to white people except their ability to work for nothing and perform under the treat of the lash. They were born into slavery, lived as a save and died in the same state.

    Of course, now today we just incarcerate people of color for crimes that others could walk from if the justice system was far more just.

    I was born into a NYC segregated neighborhood. It was just the place my parents could afford for rent and as at the time, NYC schools were pretty much neighborhood and all of similar quality. There was 1 black family in the neighborhood. the super across the street, Raymond Rollins and his son and one of my playmates, Ronnie. We were kids. We played. Ball, cowboys and Indians, etc. I went to a large NYC public school that drew from a larger area and again there were maybe 6 or so children from the black neighborhoods. They were same as me. A kid, going to school, learning and playing. I remember a boy in my class being selected to greet parents on a class day when it was open to parents we showed some of our art projects. He was black. He was chosen by our white teacher (all teachers in the 1950’s were white) to represent us as a class. When my father died and I was in the 6th grade, a friend from out of the neighborhood but in my class came to the apartment to visit me. It was sweet and well remembered. He to was black.

    Today, in NYC, I live in a segregated neighborhood. It is economically based, but still segregated. If you can afford to live here, you can.

    So where is racism in our society? Where does it stem from? Why can it not be destroyed? I know. More questions than answers.

    If part of our society, deems a problem that does not exist, as truth, eg voter fraud, you will have legislation that will prove it exists. If you have a leader that uses race as a factor in a campaign, well it must be true and those that did believe it as so follow and those needing an excuse join in.

    in 2008 when Barack Obama won the presidency, I know someone who stated something to this, ‘I hope your happy we have a black president because it will be the last one’ and then there is my good and dear friend of 40 years who stated to me, ‘I just couldn’t vote for a black man as president’. These are blatantly racist statements and yet, they were made by otherwise normal people. I have also, heard far worse in my work life that ring in my mind as new today as they did then from some coworkers on their feelings about race and their racist views. These are not the fanatic fringe. These are the everyday people that we pass in the street, sit next to at work and parent the friends of our children.

    So maybe; with the recent election results, if those of a younger generation with their overwhelming acceptance of those different than themselves but still seeing themselves in others continue to vote in that manner and if we can come together through community; we will further experience beginnings of a more equal society.

    So, maybe I do or don’t know, how to talk about race in America as I see it as somewhat and dangerous racist society that seems to have made many strides forward as it still drags its history close behind and not easily to let go.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Charles–

      I am grateful to you for the time and thought that you put into sharing your ideas and background with us. You raise several points that I’d like to further explore. First, your stories about segregated living. We know the background of segregation in housing–from the government’s decisions about where to place public housing, to realtors’ practices of redlining and racial steering (when my husband and I were house-hunting, we were definitely discouraged from looking at homes in the integrated community we’ve been living in for many years–and even then, it took a long while for our block to become fully integrated), etc, etc. And yet, as you point out, when you met black kids, even though there were few of them, they became your friends. It’s harder to see people as the “other’ when they’re your neighbors. Unfortunately, though some communities are becoming comfortably desegregated, there is growing resegregation in others, including New York City. And inextricably linked to segregated housing is segregated schooling, which is never “separate but equal.” This is a matter of vital importance.

      Second, your references to people who are your friends and coworkers who make blatantly racist remarks. Unfortunately, we are living in a time where being “politically correct” has been given a bad connotation, and the President of the United States has emboldened people to say things they might once have thought about keeping to themselves. (Bad enough they were thinking them.) I think we need to condemn those comments immediately as hurtful–in the hope that the person will at least realize that we strongly disagree–even if we can’t change minds. Silence can be interpreted as agreement. I know you’ve said in a previous comment that you try to do this, and sometimes you just know it won’t go anywhere.

      Third, the criminal justice system. The good news is that there may be some progress on the federal level at least. A bipartisan reform bill looks likely to pass, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is holding back, reportedly because of opposition from “a small uprising of Republicans” led by Tom Cotton of Arkansas. (Washington Post, November 30). And there’s positive news from Florida, where a ballot initiative was passed to allow former felons to vote. That effort will mean more than 1 million Floridians will have their right to vote restored. On the local level, there remains the huge issue of police killings of unarmed black people. The fact that the Dallas police officer who killed a black man in his home has been charged with murder is important, I believe. There must be accountability for these acts. (More on police/community issues in Part 2.)

      Like you, I have hope in the younger generations and in the power of the vote. But we must all keep raising our voices, publicly and privately, to friends, neighbors, and elected representatives at all levels, insisting that these injustices must be addressed and made right. I think the anti-gerrymandering effort that President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder are working on is something that we must pay careful attention to and lend our support.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Charles very reflective and important points. I myself have personal experiences and so does every black person I know. My children were privileged to attend “good schools” in “good neighborhoods” but I had to school them to not be trapped by the thinking. Know who you are first before you accept anyone else.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. From Annie: One of the many benefits I’m deriving from this blog is reconnecting with former friends and colleagues. One of them, a woman I am deeply fond of and greatly respect, responded to this post. She chooses to remain anonymous due to her work situation, but I believe her thoughtful response is important and should be widely read, considered, and discussed, so I am entering it in her behalf. (POC stands for people of color.) Here it is.

    I liked your blog post on race relations in America. I guess my ANONYMOUS response to the question, “how do we talk about race in America?” is for non-POC or non- historically-oppressed religious minority groups to take action more than they talk. The burden of attempting to heal race relations in this country can’t continue to fall on POC – like it’s our job to inform and educate. There is enough readily available information about our brutal history in America (and our continuing mistreatment in this country) – from slavery, genocide of indigenous peoples, and police brutality, to similar oppression of Latinos, the Chinese, and Jim Crow laws post-civil war reconstruction to name a few of the exhaustive list of examples. Yet POC are still being asked how WE can help. WE aren’t the problem. WE didn’t enslave ourselves, oppress ourselves, create laws to declare ourselves “less than” white people. Our history in this country (and other countries) has been generations of brutality, murder at the hands of non-POC, and subsequent financial and social disenfranchisement. Even when we work hard to get ahead and “fit into” a country that was built and made rich BY us but never intended FOR us, we are still forced to endure subtle and overt racism. So while POC continue to be weighed down by these chains, we are now expected to be the ones to explain why the chains are heavy and why we are ready to collapse to those whose ancestors designed the chains and placed them on us to begin with. With a smile, song, and a dance, I might add – we know that we are more acceptable and far less threatening when we are entertaining you.

    Many POC are just plain tired of talking about race relations in America. Racism wasn’t invented by us. It is a horror that’s been forced on us to endure. It’s non-POC who should have honest discussions with their non-POC family members and friends. “What do WE need to do to be more accepting? How can we use OUR privilege and considerable power to change legislation that’s continuing to disenfranchise POC? Where can WE make a difference: at our jobs, our social clubs, our churches, at the ballot box? Are WE doing enough to speak up and more importantly, DO something about racial injustice in America? Or are we retreating into our safe spaces – the ones where we bemoan the news stories of black-on-black crime statistics in Chicago as a “see? This is the reason why we are fearful and hateful” rationale.

    It’s taken 242 consistent years of racism to bring us to where we are today. It’s going to take at least 242 consistent years of ALL non-POC working collectively to change the situation to fix race relations in America (not just the “liberal elites” on the coasts who actually haven’t been that liberal when it comes to race relations when you look closer). The ball’s in your court.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree but not to digress we poc have to shed the mental slavery which has been ingrained by the majority. It manifests in many destructive ways to include some responsibility of trading each other for benefits to the slave masters. We have to come to terms that some of us did do this. Once we are clear on that point we can move on to present day- what’s next? Do we embrace each other in the black diaspora? Again another issue of differences enforced by the slave masters. House slaves superior to field slaves SMH Deal with yourselves on this and clear the conscience, conscious and unconscious to start rebuilding. Where do we spend our money and why? It’s certainly not in the black community NOR with black businesses. At least not hardly as much as other enterprises. Why? This is what we are taught! Then everyone turns around and look at black communities as though they are slums, no good after they deliberately and consciously coerced the mindframe involved in their purchasing options. White is better. Shop in white malls. In the meantime the black “slums” degrades because our incomes are going elsewhere. We have buying power and we are duped into thinking we do not. Our financial power is negated and is reinforced by media.

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      1. Now I see where you were going with your reference to financial advantage. Of course!
        Would you care to elaborate on how you see the concept of house slaves superior to field slaves playing out currently–as opposed to historically? Does that refer to economic class differences? Middle class POC distancing themselves from poorer POC? Or something else?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. House slaves/field slaves basically comes down to various differences, but fundamentally it is skin color or shade. The masters bred the house slaves themselves. They were taught they were better and treated better. The field slaves were just that. The ones who were treated as nothing and told they were nothing. Fast forward to present day some of that psychology still plagues poc.

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