I hear many of my friends, and friends of friends, through conversations and social media comment on the current state of race relations. I am often surprised by their lack of understanding, empathy, or Christian charity towards people of color. On the other hand, recently I was speaking about this subject with a similarly-aged African American woman. She was a life-long Californian, and had moved to our area a few months previously. She thought race relations between blacks and whites were terrible in our city, “not much improved from the 1960’s.” I begged to differ, having lived in the South since 1968; I tried to make a case that although it’s far from perfect, it’s still much better than it was back then. I said I thought this is especially true for my children’s generation. They don’t see race as obvious as we did back then. For example, an interracial couple, holding hands walking through the mall is barely noticeable at all these days, I think even by people of my generation. A black person and a white person in a relationship was a big deal 30 or 40 years ago. It was even mortally dangerous 50 years ago in some parts of the South. So, to say we haven’t progressed is not seeing how bad things truly were, and how far we’ve come along in getting along. But, it’s an ongoing process that still needs work. So, I propose to offer a few thoughts on why we white southerners, really white Americans should avoid certain comments about the current state of race relations.
• We have elected a black president, we have black mayors, and government officials of all stations –isn’t that proof enough we’ve attained equality? Certainly those are good things. People are being elected by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. But the real power in our country today, comes from business and financial power, not governmental power. Where are the good jobs to be had? In local or national government? That was an entry point for many ethnic groups in the past. But the Irish, German, Italians did not become fully assimilated into the culture until they became the doctors, lawyers and judges, not just the cops and custodians. Having an African-American president or mayor is a great sign of tremendous progress, but there’s a lot of work to do to bring everyone into the mainstream.
• Black people use the “N” word frequently in song and in conversation, why is it such a big deal if I as a white person use that same word? It’s a big deal because of what it means when a white person uses the word towards a person of color. It’s a statement of pure humiliation. It means I am superior to you as a living, human being. You are beneath me in the chain of human development. It diminishes the other’s human dignity. It’s a slap in the face of our guiding American principles; it’s a piercing reminder that all men are not created equal. I can’t even think of a comparative insult to a white American. There’s virtually nothing anyone could say to me that would be as insulting.
• I’ve never owned slaves; none of my ancestors ever owned slaves, why do they keep throwing that issue in my face? To understand this, I’ve known people who have had bad things happen to them in their past, in their childhood many, many years ago. They’ve been scarred for life by those experiences, and scars heal differently for different people. The humiliation and devastation of slavery is like a scar on the soul of an entire people. Based on the individual, and how the scar heals, some are barely noticeable, but some are lingering and more difficult to deal with. So, for my fellow white citizens, have a little empathy for a people whose relatives were treated with such cruelty and complete lack of humanity. The horrors of the Holocaust of the Jews of the 20th Century continues to haunt the children and children’s children of the people of that experience. So too does the specter of slavery scar deeply on those of African descent. Such a mighty wrong isn’t, and shouldn’t be forgotten, lest we make those mistakes again.
• I’m not a racist, but… If I have to preface what I’m about to say about someone or some people with this phrase, it’s probably not worth saying. Even the singer Madonna recently used this phrase in her defense of her use of the “N” word. Well, looking back on it, I bet she wouldn’t use that particular word again. If I’m truly not a racist, I shouldn’t have to start any kind of race-related statement with that preface. Don’t tell us you’re not a racist; let your actions speak for themselves.
• For years Blacks have had the right to vote, protections against discrimination; we’ve integrated the schools, given them preference in entering college, what else can we do for them? Just because it’s illegal to run through a red light, people are killed every day. It’s illegal to drive while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and yet thousands of people do it every day. News flash, many people do not obey all laws… Some people don’t acknowledge the legitimacy of all laws, and therefore they have no qualms about ignoring them. We see this especially recently with conservative/libertarian groups who do not recognize, even rebel against Federal Government authority. When it comes to anti-discrimination laws, you simply can’t legislate a spirit of fairness and equity.
And so, to some of my friends who feel we’ve achieved racial equality, and beyond; and to many who feel we’ve barely moved the needle, I say we are somewhere in between those two extremes. I think of the dark days of the middle of the last century, and the amazing bravery and witness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. against tremendous odds. Largely because of Dr. King’s vision, we’ve come a long way, and this is to be celebrated. But, even though we –black and white citizens can sit at lunch counters together, ride the same public transportation side by side, enjoy sporting events, concerts, and movies together -we seem to have, to use a football term, just moved the ball into the red zone. Now that we are inside the 20 yard line, we need to continue the progress to get into the end zone and score. Legally, we are equal. Legally we have equal opportunity and access to the American Dream. But, what is in our hearts? What is in our attitudes? How are we treating each other? With respect? With dignity? With friendship? If we can keep moving forward together, we can continue the dialog on a positive path, and we can ultimately celebrate victory together, as Dr. King envisioned.