March 4, 2009, 4:30 P.M.
Attorney General Eric Holder recently challenged us all to think differently about race in America. He did so by saying that we are “cowards” when it comes to the discussions about race and I think that he is correct. I also think that the discussion needs to move beyond what has become the most recent sticking point that centers around the question of “how far we have come versus how far we still have to go.”
This argument to me is a lot like refusing to negotiate a peace treaty without first negotiating the shape of the table. It doesn’t advance the substantive discussion at all, and it stands as an impediment to real progress.
As the argument now goes, blacks want to say that, despite recent events (the election of Barack Obama and the appointment of Eric Holder to name a couple), racism is still pervasive and we have a long way to go before we are a “race neutral” society. Whites want to say that we have come very far in this struggle, citing the same examples, and that for us to move further, blacks need to acknowledge and accept this as a fact. To me, both observations are accurate. The emphasis on either is where we get hung up. The fact that we still get hung up on anything about race means we still have a long way to go (in both directions). Unless we focus on the discussion, rather than hiding from it (as Holder suggests) we cannot move beyond the current stalemate.
Where the cowardice comes in, I think, is in the details. We should get beyond the “where we have come/where we still need to go” discussion and talk about why we still notice that people are of a different race or color. For some reason, we think as a society (or, more accurately, as two societies) that to embrace our differences is to give up on individuality or that to even notice that there are differences is of itself racist. Here, courage is needed.
I do not feel threatened by people of color in any way. In many respects, I envy their rich heritage, culture and character forged in adversity and struggle, and tempered in art, music , poetry and industry. I say that while recognizing many of the same components of my own heritage and character bred of my own ancestry. Put simply, we need to better understand and appreciate each other, while maintaining our own identity. I don’t care to be black and if I were black, I would not care to be white.
No one alive in this country today was a slave or owned a slave (of course, there are sad, notable exceptions, but I hope my point is obvious). For that reason, a full, fair and honest look at our history is warranted, but our past has to stop driving our future or we will not move forward. I cannot understand, nor can I apologize enough, for the horrors of slavery, segregation, bigotry and prejudice. At some point, what has been said and done needs to be enough so that the focus can be on how far we need to go, rather than how far we have come.
The current economic crisis presents a perfect opportunity. We are now facing adversity that transcends race. We are mired in a struggle that we can all face together, and that will strengthen us all. This will, if we let it, give us a common endeavor, faced from equal footing which will become a common bond that is not defined by race.
In order for this experience, this test, to unite us, it has to involve a degree of common sacrifice to which we can all relate. That’s the whole message of the Obama candidacy, and hopefully his presidency. We are all in this together and it is going to be difficult.
I’m really tired of this being so much about individuals. After 9/11, people were asking what they could do, what sacrifices they could make. Unfortunately, the previous administration lacked the courage, foresight and frankly, credibility, to honestly answer that question. I want people, all people, to respond to this crisis by changing their behavior and their attitudes so that hard work, perseverance, entrepreneurial spirit and personal courage are rewarded regardless of race or any other dividing or differentiating factor.
As I have said before, I also want our approach to economic stimulus to be about us making things again, and about us having an infrastructure in this country that recognizes that we need to move away from our own needs and desires to a more responsible and community-oriented approach to personal and economic interaction, but that is another discussion.
Truly, the only color which should be of any interest in this process is green, otherwise we will all, regardless of our ethnicity, be in a similarly leaky boat.