Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Conversation on Race

I started to watch Bill Moyers Journal last night and the first segment was so thought provoking that I turned it off and just sat in relative silence for a while. His guest was John McWhorters and the conversation that they had was on race, but it may not have been the conversation that Attorney General Holder meant in his Black History Month talk at the Justice Department.
Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and we, I believe, continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we average Americans simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial.
The rest of this takes more than I want to put on this front page and so you need to click Read more! to follow it.

Through it all, Moyers prompted McWhorters to define what he meant when he said that Holder was making a coded statement, and then pushed McWhorters to have the conversation that Holder was looking for. As a result, what I got was portions of two different converstations. One that McWhorters wanted to have with Moyers, the other that he did not want to have with Holder.

The first, is pretty much summed up with this statement.
White privilege is the way sometimes it's more provocatively put. And those things are there. But my question is whether or not we can eliminate those things within any time span that is less than geological. And so, yes, I know that there are arguments that there is institutional racism. But in terms of helping people who need help, it seems that they are very practical, hands-on strategies that we can use and that we can teach people to use that have a more interesting effect to me than crusading against the fact that society isn't fair.

Basically, I can't imagine the playing field ever being completely level. I don't know how you can create that. And this is the crucial thing.
The comments to Holder did not come until the end, when Moyers asked him how he would begin a frank conversation on race with Holder.
If he was sitting in front of me right now I would say, Mr. Holder, Eric, whatever it would be, are you afraid of the prospect of black America having to move on without calling on whites to acknowledge their racism? Are you afraid of the fact that despite the nastiness of our history, despite the injustice of slave ships, the Jim Crow, and everything else, that we're at a point where even though we're still in a position behind telling white people that they're racist is no longer going to do the job. It's not that I find it unfashionable or distasteful. You're not going to help anyone doing that. Are you afraid of us really having to take responsibility for ourselves? And what's important is I would say, Mr. Holder, you know that our taking responsibility for ourselves will involve calling on the government to do things to allow us to do that. So this is not some bootstraps argument. But still are you afraid of no longer talking about racism? Why is it that when you made a speech you wanted to take that line after Barack Obama's been elected president? Isn't it time to knock this off? That is what I would say to him. And, and I want to specify. It's time to knock this off because it is not helping anyone anymore. That is what I would say to him.
I sense that there is a generational change between that of Obama or McWhorters and that of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Those, like Holder, who bridge that gap seem to have a hard time finding the language appropriate to the occasion when falling back on easily invoked coded speech may or may not apply.

I was challenged by this entire episode. It made me question whether I had a right to express my own opinion and desires. I know that my Mother had a very race free outlook. Moving to Flagstaff, AZ in 1953 was a shock to her as Flagstaff had very distinct and strong race problems and even then there was no racial majority of population in the town, though it was clear that the power was with the whites. Still, she always said that she did not care who I married as long as they were a Christian and I could not even do that.

Still, coming from that background, I can never think of the subject of race without questioning myself. Maybe that is all any of us can do.


Philip H. said...

Perhaps he most important thing is what you personally do after you question yourself.

Wes said...

That is right, Philip. But that is me, holding my self accountable to a standard and not someone else applying a standard that I can never attain for the simple reason that racial understanding is not universal.