How’s that Conversation Working Out for You?

Back in 2009, newly installed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder created a stir, one of many to come, with his first speech after assuming the office, a commemoration of Black History Month. His provocative declaration sparked a lot of debate and discussion, and it was the eventual jumping off point for my book, a memoir and collection of personal thoughts on black/white race relations in America:

Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and 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 race. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation's history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.

Many of his critics, me among them, pointed out that most of these conversations are one-sided and those who dissent from a pre-defined narrative are excoriated publicly, an outcome not conducive to a real conversation. Common sense tells us that one of the rules of effective communication is trying not to offend the person with whom you're attempting to communicate, but if anything, thanks to the pervasiveness of social media and the faux boldness of people sitting behind their computer monitors and banging out on their keyboards the first thing that comes to their minds, that is even less likely today than it was in 2009.

For his part, Attorney General Holder has no regrets about his comments:

"I wouldn't walk away from that speech," Holder told ABC News in an interview. "I think we are still a nation that is too afraid to confront racial issues," he said, adding that Americans are still hesitant to reach out to "one another across the color line [to] talk about racial issues."

As I watch the city of Baltimore awash in turmoil, and as we once again confront long-standing and unanswered questions about the fractured relationship between law enforcement and the black community, the call has gone out once again for "a national conversation on race."

Are we resurrecting that plea again? To what end? And how has that worked out in the past? I humbly offer the observation that we've had plenty of conversations on race since Attorney General Holder accused us of cowardice on the topic. I just don't believe they've been particularly constructive.

I suspect the residents of Baltimore, Ferguson and similar communities around the nation, if asked, would probably tell you that they're tired of conversation, and that conversation hasn't had a tangible impact on their daily lives. They've been hearing politicians talk every election year about improving their circumstances, yet nothing has gotten better. Every time there's an incident which raises the specter of race, pundits, public figures, academicians and other cultural elites call for a national dialogue, and they go at each other in the media and online, only to turn to the next big thing when it takes over the news cycle, and the issue of racial disharmony is relegated to the back burner until the next incident. It's a repetitive cycle that leads nowhere.

Besides, have you scanned social media in the wake of a racially-charged episode? I recommend you read the third chapter of the Book of James before you do. It reads, in part:

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. ~ James 3:7-12

Even after you've taken these wise words of Scripture to heart, the vitriol, stereotypes and cruelty of online discourse will leave you bereft of any hope that we could speak about race in any meaningful way. I'm persuaded that the words which leap from our computer keyboards onto the screen are a closer representation of our true selves than what we might say face to face, where some vestiges of decorum remain to govern our speech. If social media is a window into the heart of America when it comes to race, perhaps it's best that we not speak because, frankly and almost without exception, we aren't listening to each other. We're shouting at each other, and marinating in the sound of our own voices and those which validate our views.

So is fear really the greatest barrier to a truly meaningful national conversation about race? Certainly there's a significant segment of the population that avoids talking about race because it's a highly charged topic and they abhor conflict, but it doesn't appear to me that our problem is our unwillingness to talk about it. It's the quality of our conversation that's the problem.

If you read Attorney General Holder's words carefully, it's apparent right away why we can't have a constructive dialogue on race. We're not "comfortable enough with one another", nor are we "tolerant enough of each other", and no one with any degree of credibility with the general public is extending a hand "across the color line" to show us what that looks like. The hyper-partisanship of the political arena which first became apparent during the Clinton Administration, and has simply grown during the Bush and Obama years, has captured the race conversation and turned it into verbal warfare. In a world where power is the primary objective, the other side is the enemy, and winning requires the other side to lose, a conversation is practically impossible.

While watching the events in Baltimore unfold this week, my son lamented that there was no one out there with the gravitas and moral authority of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King to exert leadership and quell the unrest. My reply to him was that, even if there was, I doubt we'd listen to them. Even people who call themselves Christians are partaking in the war of words.

"With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness." Blacks are thugs. Whites are bigots. No one is yielding.

Dr. King once said, "We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now." His choice of metaphor was quite deliberate, and I want to unpack his quote to make clear the challenge we face when attempting to have a conversation.

For the most part, whites made the choice to come to America, and they decided the risks of making a new home in a strange land were preferable to remaining where they were. In some respects, this explains the exceptional nature of America, at least in its formative years. Dr. Arthur C. Brooks makes the case that one of the reasons for America's devotion to entrepreneurship and free enterprise is because it is, largely, a nation of immigrants:

So entrepreneurship as a personality trait might be in the American DNA. Think about it: Immigrants tend to be entrepreneurial, willing to give up security and familiarity for the possibility of prosperity and success. This trait is relatively rare – a mutation from the norm. Only a small minority of people from any particular community tend to migrate away from their homeland. But the United States is a nation made up of such people, a land where immigrants and their descendants have married other immigrants and their descendants. Consequently, a genetic mutation that leads to entrepreneurial behavior would appear in more of our citizens and replicate itself much more easily than elsewhere. As a result, America's vast success might be explained in part by our genetic predisposition to embrace risks with potentially explosive rewards. ~ Arthur C. Brooks, "The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future", Page 6.

Contrast that with the way most black people arrived in America:

On reaching the Americas the crew of slave ships prepared the Africans for sale. They washed, shaved and rubbed them with palm oil to disguise sores and wounds caused by conditions on board. The captains usually sold their captives directly to planters or specialised wholesalers by auction. Families who had managed to stay together were now often broken up. Bonds formed during the voyage were also broken.

Immediately owners and their overseers sought to obliterate the identities of their newly acquired slaves, to break their wills and sever any bonds with the past. They forced Africans to adapt to new working and living conditions, to learn a new language and adopt new customs. They called this process 'seasoning' and it could last two or three years.

For Africans, weakened by the trauma of the voyage, the brutality of this process was overwhelming. Many died or committed suicide. Others resisted and were punished. The rest found ways of appearing to conform which still preserved their dignity. ~ International Slave Museum

The mindset of a people forcibly removed from their homes, transported under horrific conditions, and brought to a foreign land where they are treated, not as the unique and gifted human beings they were, but as beasts of burden, is markedly different from an immigrant outlook. Even immigrants who faced discrimination upon arriving in America were still immigrants, people who made a decision to come here for a better life, or to escape the life they had.

What is the "genetic predisposition" of a people who didn't seek to come here, or weren't fleeing the lives they had, who endured centuries of enslavement, legal discrimination and racism, who lived under the threat of domestic terrorism even as the law declared them to be free, and were taught from childhood that they were lesser than their white brethren?

Nothing illustrates the dichotomy between the immigrant and the slave more than differences between people of color who immigrated to America vice those who were brought here as property. Even in the early 20th century, when racism was openly practiced, black immigrants were progressing at a greater rate than the former slaves. In a previous article, I shared the following observation:

[Dr. Carter G. Woodson] admired the West Indian blacks who migrated to the United States in the early 1900s because, according to his observations, they came here literate, seeking more education, and with "high individual worth," to use Dr. John C. Walter's words, considering themselves "to be the equal of any man." By 1930, West Indian immigrants comprised 40 percent of all black doctors in America despite being only 1.2 to 1.5 percent of the population. In 1938, foreign born blacks comprised only 17 percent of the overall black population of New York City, but made up a third of its professionals and one fourth of the skilled artisans.

In my book, I highlighted the success of African immigrants in educational attainment and wealth creation:

Africans have the highest levels of educational attainment of any immigrant group, exceeding even Asian-Americans who are stereotyped as being exceptionally well-educated. In fact, Africans are more highly educated than any native-born ethnic group, including white Americans. A higher percentage of African immigrants have graduate degrees than white or black Americans. African immigrants are wealthier than black Americans too.

So, as Dr. King succinctly pointed out, the circumstances of our arrival differed significantly. His declaration that "we're all in the same boat now", however, was also quite deliberate.

People in the same boat need to work together and not against each other, or they won't make any progress. Can you picture one group rowing in one direction while the other rows in the exact opposite direction? It's a foolish image, to be sure, but it's also applicable to what's going on in America today. It's also important that we don't shoot holes in the boat we're all sharing, and that's a perfect metaphor for what's happening in our communities today. When black lives end too soon at the hands of the authorities charged with protecting and defending the citizenry, and under questionable circumstances, that's shooting holes in the boat. When, in response, some residents set their own communities ablaze, leaving themselves and their innocent neighbors to contend with the burnt-out aftermath and economic depression for years to come, that's shooting holes in the boat.

Can we acknowledge that we all didn't end up in the boat the same way but, now that we're in the same boat, treat it as if we both live in it, because we do?

If we can do that, maybe we can start having a conversation that actually leads to something.