Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Real Conversation on Race

In the days since the announcement by Ferguson, Missouri District Attorney Bob McCulloch that former police officer Darren Wilson did not commit an indictable offense when he fired multiple shots at and ultimately killed an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, the national discourse has erupted with the usual suspects calling for an open and honest conversation on race yet speaking only to their own respective echo chambers.  The liberal crowd has rushed to MSNBC to decry all things police, while the conservative crowd has rushed to Fox News to decry all things Michael Brown.  Like two ships passing in the night, the two camps are largely speaking past one another as opposed to speaking to one another. 

One event, however, triggered both camps to look up and take notice when the St. Louis Rams demonstrated their support of the protesters of the Michael Brown shooting.  It seems that the problems between minorities and the criminal justice system is a problem that most in America are willing to (somewhat) acknowledge, but when it interrupts Monday night football then things have gone too far.  People like MSNBC's Joe Scarborough immediately turned red and went on now-infamous tirade about how the St. Louis Rams players should be punished and should apologize and how the entire "Hands Up" symbol is, according to Scarborough, based on a lie and should not be repeated.  Fox New's Greta Van Susteren similarly took offense to the act and stated that football should be off limits to discussions of race or politics.  Then, almost within the same breath, both Scarborough and Van Susteren called for an open and honest dialogue about race.  Apparently this "open and honest dialogue" does not apply to Americans who play in the National Football League.  If you're finding it difficult to reconcile these two contradictory notions then you're probably not alone. 

The point is this: if you want to make progress towards improving America's race problem (and let's not waste time debating whether there is, in fact, a problem) then you must be willing to address it not only when it conveniences you but also (and here's the kicker) when it inconveniences you.

That said, one of the valuable lessons that those like Joe Scarborough must learn in approaching this debate is the lesson of false equivalency.  Although Joe and Mika and the good folks at MSNBC should be commended for attempting to take a balanced approach to America's race problem by using such phrases as "problems on both sides" or "equal issues on both sides" and things of that nature, the reality is that White America and Black America have never been on equal footing since the first Blacks were brought to this nation as property.  One side has, from the beginning, had all of the power over the other side.  Even to this day, Whites continue to enjoy the vestiges of centuries of White privilege, often without their even being aware that such a privilege exists.  This is not to stoke the flames of those who believe in "us" versus "them" but rather an acknowledgment of fact that must be made if we are to have an open and honest dialogue on race.

Chris Rock spoke to this very point recently when he said the following:

When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it's all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they're not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before…
So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he's the first black person that is qualified to be president. That's not black progress. That's white progress. There's been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship's improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, "Oh, he stopped punching her in the face." It's not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn't. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let's hope America keeps producing nicer white people.

Although difficult for some to accept, Rock makes a valid point here in recognizing that Whites have historically been in the driver's seat when it comes to how Blacks and Whites progress on race relations.  Such being the case, as much as we've progressed to the point where we'd like to believe that Blacks and Whites are on an equal playing field, the reality of our society today is that they're still not quite there yet.   In other words, conversations that attempt to begin from the notion that Blacks and Whites are "both equally to blame" for racial disparities in situations like Ferguson are conversations that, although well intentioned, critically miss the mark.

We can make progress, but we have to be honest about it.  And being honest means putting away the talking points and putting away the urge to fit every racial situation into a "everyone is equally to blame" round hole when clearly the problem peg comes in the shape of a square.  The facts are what they are.  Accept them.  Once we do that, then we might begin to deal with them in a meaningful way. 

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