What Has to Break Before We’ll Talk?

I recently read and shared an article by Townhall.com contributor and conservative blogger and activist John Hawkins, who was disturbed by the nation's inability to talk about race in a respectful way:

It's very difficult to discuss racial issues in America because every conversation tends to devolve down into some hostile version of, "That's racist" vs. "No, it's not" -- and nothing ever gets accomplished. In an attempt to try something a little different, I reached out to some friends…They all posted messages on their Facebook pages requesting questions and I'm going to be honestly answering some of them in a respectful manner.

The article, "7 Questions You've Always Wanted To Ask A White Conservative", was an attempt to open a channel to better communications between black and white Americans, and while I appreciated Mr. Hawkins' candor and what I perceive as an authentic desire for a gracious and respectful exchange of opinions, all the article seems to have done is bring out the usual tribal defenses or denunciations.

We have been trying to have this dialogue in America since well before President Bill Clinton declared in 1997 that he intended to lead "a national conversation on race", making that phrase a standard part of the political lexicon. Those words are trotted out after every racially charged episode which garners national attention, and I usually roll my eyes when I hear or read them, because nothing ever really comes of the "conversation". After a few fits and starts, we go back to our respective sides of the racial borders which divide us into tribes, mingle civilly yet uncomfortably in demilitarized zones like the workplace, schools or stores, and live out our lives until the next period of racial tension forces us yet again to confront the fact that we haven't yet resolved the thorny issue of race in America, especially the more than four centuries of enmity between black and white Americans.

I've been a long-time critic of the call for "a national conversation on race" because a conversation is supposed to engage both parties, meaning that each one communicates directly to the other, and each one listens while the other is communicating. The first definition in the dictionary of the word 'conversation' is the "informal interchange of thoughts, information, etc., by spoken words; oral communication between persons; talk; colloquy."

If you dig a little deeper and look at the word 'interchange', you learn that it is more than just expressing yourself into the void, the outcome be damned. To 'interchange' is 1) "to put each in the place of the other"; 2) "to cause (one thing) to change places with another; transpose"; 3) to give and receive (things) reciprocally; exchange; 4) "to cause to follow one another alternately; alternate."

Note that conversation requires us to be persuasive enough to actually put the other person in our place. For a conversation to be successful, you must be convincing enough to make the other people feel like they are in your shoes. That's a tall order for most of us, however.

What usually happens when a conversation is attempted is that we talk past each other or over each other, directing our communications to our own tribes, which is great for currying their continued approval, or to the body politic in the hope of persuading those who are undecided on the topic that 'we' are right and 'they' are wrong. That's not a conversation because communication isn't taking place, and if communication isn't happening, change isn't going to happen, either. We don't communicate as much as we pontificate; we don't teach as much as we scold.

One of the best chapters on communications I've read comes from Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals" – no, I'm not kidding. The chapter is entitled "Communications" – imagine that! – and it opens with these words:

It does not matter what you know about anything if you cannot communicate to your people. In that event you are not even a failure. You're just not there. Communication with others takes place when they understand what you're trying to get across to them. If they don't understand, then you are not communicating regardless of words, pictures, or anything else. People only understand things in terms of their experience, which means that you must get within their experience. Further, communication is a two-way process. If you try to get your ideas across to others without paying attention to what they have to say to you, you can forget about the whole thing.

In another section of the chapter, Alinsky writes, "Since people understand only in terms of their experience, an organizer must have at least a cursory familiarity with their experience. It not only serves communication but it strengthens the personal identification of the organizer with the others."

In 1965, then Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a social scientist who would later become a U.S. senator, wrote The Negro Family: The Case For National Action, a report which highlighted the alarming destruction of the black family in America and concluded, "a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure." The report was pilloried by critics who accused Moynihan of "blaming the victim", and its conclusions were left unaddressed. What was then a 25 percent out-of-wedlock birth rate in the black community is now at a breathtaking 72 percent. What's chilling is, because we dismissed this report's linkage of intact families with positive social outcomes, what was once "a largely low-income—and disproportionately black—phenomenon", according to Kay S. Hymowitz, is rapidly becoming the norm in society as a whole, with over 40 percent of all children born out of wedlock. This isn't just a black problem anymore.

In 1968, months before the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in response to rioting that had taken place in major cities across America, the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the causes of the unrest and propose solutions, declared, "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal." Subsequently, Dr. King's murder and the violence that broke out afterwards added a grim exclamation point to the commission's findings.

In 1998, thirty years later, the Eisenhower Foundation marked the anniversary of the Kerner Commission report with The Millennium Breach: Richer, Poorer and Racially Apart which, while acknowledging the advances of the black middle class, concluded that "conditions in inner-city ghettos went from bad to worse."

In 2015, in the wake of the riots in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll revealed that an astounding 96% of Americans "said it was likely there would be additional racial disturbances this summer, a signal that Americans believe Baltimore's recent problems aren't a local phenomenon but instead are symptomatic of broader national problems." Since the riots in Baltimore, the number of murders in that city during the month of May was more than double the average for that month. Observers attribute it to a police force reticent to engage in a community that is so hostile to their presence that every action they take is scrutinized as a racially motivated event, and criminals who are emboldened by the indecision of law enforcement to carry out their protective duties. One death has now led to many more, the most in one month since December 1971, when the city was more populous than it is today.

We've been trying to have a conversation for 50 years, and while we talk or shout past each other, thousands of men, women and children have paid a heavy price, sometimes with their very lives. One side wants them to place the burden on forces outside of their control, and the other wants to put the responsibility on them, completely oblivious to or unconcerned about what they must overcome just to break the surface and keep from drowning. They've become pawns in a game, and we've denied their humanity by turning them into statistics or, worse, stereotypes that give us comfort in our views while denying them the comfort of human compassion and concern.

Have you ever been to some of these neighborhoods? Have you entered their homes and spent time with them? I have, and I've walked away barely able to breathe because of the heaviness in my chest from seeing how they live every day. I hear a voice in my head screaming, "Surely no one wants to live like that! I'd do anything to get out of that kind of life!" Something horrible must have happened to them for them to have surrendered to their despair.

It makes me angry that our political squabbles have them trapped between two worlds. In one world, they are the hostages of systemic racism, but they don't even know where to direct their frustrations, much less have the power to confront it, and must rely on self-anointed community leaders and elected officials who have yet to deliver on their promises of relief. In the other world, they are told their predicament is mostly their fault, and they somehow know what to do to get out of their circumstances and simply need to do it.

Shame on us! They only seek the hope, grace and love that God has given each of us. Who are we to withhold that from them just to prove a point?

What has to happen for us to abandon our pride and really listen to each other, and try to teach each other about our varying perspectives, rather than scolding one another and using rhetoric as a weapon? What will it take for us to "put each in the place of the other"?

May God have mercy on us.