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