Recently I happened to find myself in conversation with a friend over the then-white-hot situation in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, where the killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of local police erupted—thanks to a perfect storm of factors—to become an international flashpoint.
In our conversation, the friend mentioned that the one thing that was clear from this incident is that America was in need of a ‘new conversation about race.’
At that moment, I made the sad, half-smiling grimace that I often am moved to whenever someone says something dreadfully naïve. It’s not that talking about race in America should not be done—it is in many ways sadly necessary—but rather that these “conversations” seem to accomplish almost nothing.
The idea of a ‘Conversation About Race’ would be great, if it was an actual conversation, which requires listening to each other and taking turns speaking. The reality of the ‘conversation about race,’ however, is really people shouting their preconceived notions of race at each other, then expecting the other party to fully agree with them at the end of the ‘conversation’.
The reaction to the Brown shooting and ensuing protests in the ‘court of public opinion’ has been predictably polarized. According to a Pew poll released shortly after the incident, there was a massive gap in how whites and African Americans viewed the situation, with whites far less likely to think race was a real factor in the case, less likely to see the police response as too harsh and far more likely to trust the official investigation. Settle in for more of the same once the trial—which may never happen—begins.
But this situation has been clear long before the Ferguson situation exploded. In many ways, the entire presidency of Barack Obama, far from ushering in an alleged ‘post-racial America,’ has been one very long ‘conversation about race.’
Before he even was the Democratic candidate for president, Obama had to contend with the Jeremiah Wright controversy—the one where it was discovered that the then-candidate’s favored Chicago preacher had views on race that channeled the kind of black resentment Obama had managed to elide, if not completely avoid. The only reason he had managed to be a credible candidate in the first place, instead of occupying the zone of hopeless rabble-rouser at the edge of the primary debate stage, was because he, as The Economist put so well at the time, “does not sound professionally aggrieved.” Wright threatened to undo that, and Obama largely solved the problem by politely wheeling the pastor under the metaphorical bus, in the context of a ‘big speech on race’. The pundits cheered, the campaign strategists crowed (a ‘Sister Souljah moment,’ in the tired parlance of the punditariat) but did we really learn anything from the incident? No.
Early into the Obama presidency, circumstances forced another ‘conversation’; Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard professor and host of numerous PBS specials, was arrested by police in Cambridge, Massachusetts for the crime of ‘breaking into’ his own home. In the aftermath, Obama commented that he thought the police had “acted stupidly,” thus lighting the fire of right-wing outrage. Shouting ensued again, and in the end Obama invited Gates and the arresting officer to the White House for a ‘Beer Summit’ photo op, where they accomplished little more than providing a nice visual set-piece for cable TV cameras. The talk was talked, but no one seemed to learn anything, to listen, or to change their point of view. At the very least the two in the middle of the situation came to some understanding.
Several months later, Obama gave an address before a joint session of Congress on what became the Affordable Care Act. After noting that the plan would not provide coverage for illegal immigrants, Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “you lie” to Obama, from across the hall of Congress. For those more used to the Westminster parliamentary system, it bears noting how major a breach of decorum this was. Though questions were raised again regarding the outburst, no understanding seemed to be reached.
Fast forwarding past those heady early days of the Obama administration, we arrive in 2012, and at the grim Trayvon Martin case. If there was anything that should have extinguished the impression that America has turned a corner on race, this was it. The details of the case don’t need detailed summary—George Zimmerman, local watchman, saw Martin walking home, thought him suspicious, and ignored police commands to stand back. Zimmerman then approached Martin, escalating the situation and ultimately killing the teenager. Zimmerman’s trial, which only happened because national outrage propelled the story to the forefront of the American consciousness, was a truly divisive spectacle of blaming hoodies, rap music, weed, and all other manner of alleged evils for his death instead of truly engaging with one of the central questions the case posed: Does society’s perception of African American men make them more likely to die at the hands of vigilantes and police in these situations?
In the wake of the Zimmerman acquittal, a template has been drawn for covering these incidents and discussing them. There has been a broader cultural awareness of why there was outrage in the black community and some willingness to engage with it– but not enough.
So, what are we to do? To discuss race, a topic which even our allegedly enlightened campus fails to talk about without a descent into shouting, one must first be willing to listen. And then talk. And then listen again. One must be willing to try to understand why someone sees things the way they do—and this truly works both ways. The infamous ‘Southern Strategy’ and ‘Welfare Queen‘ attacks—two notable instances of political attacks playing on the racial resentments of working class whites—worked for a reason, and not because the people who bought it were uniformly “bad” people. To counter those who would play on racial prejudices, one must understand why they exist and reason with them. If we could actually sit down and talk to each other, we might actually get a tenth of the way to addressing race relations.