27 May 2008

Can we talk -- and listen?

There's an awful lot to say about race in this country and there's a lot of talking that needs to go on. It occurs to me that the biggest problem is being able to listen.
Here's a problem for white people: If they're honest about their feelings one of three things is likely to happen - they'll either be exposed as racist, they'll sound racist, or they'll be accused of being racist. Therein lies a huge part of the problem, the word racist. It's so charged and its so overused. Racism itself is generally institutionalized, not practiced by individuals. Most people can be accurately accused of prejudices or bias but racism is pretty strong stuff and doesn't apply all that often anymore.
A lot of white people are afraid to engage in a dialogue about race. And I'm not even talking about those whites who don't see what the problem is (have you seen statistics comparing the number of African American males in college versus the number in prison? Or the poverty rate among African Americans compared with whites?). The conservative narrative doesn't even acknowledge that there's an institutional solution necessary or desirable.
The United States got in this jam because after slavery ended the Reconstruction Era failed the Freedmen. What followed -- after the oh-so brief run Radical Reconstruction enjoyed, was the Jim Crow Era and conditions for blacks that can be legitimately argued were worse than slavery. True racism became entrenched in this slave-free country and extricating ourselves from the mess it caused could not be accomplished by Civil Rights legislation alone.
There’s a lot of hatred, anger and bitterness. There’s also a lot of misunderstanding as there can be when you essentially have two different cultures. Many white people don’t acknowledge that they are part of the problem nor that they need to be part of any solution. After all, they can legitimately claim, it’s not MY fault. It’s hard for me to speak for my African Americans brothers and sisters but I know many are alienated from “the system” and discouraged, more intent on surviving day-to-day than even dreaming of systemic change.
As a nation we should be talking about this openly, and listening eagerly and doing both without fear. It would seem an impossible task but if an African American can be elected president later this year, who knows.

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