The latest racial nightmares to sweep across the land are at once sickening and fantastic: sickening because of the bald racism expressed by Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling, fantastic because of the instantaneous and near-universal condemnation of them both.
Maybe it’s the fact that Bundy and Sterling were so blatant that made it easier to see the horror in their words. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that our latest national conversation on race hasn’t slipped into its usual pattern of finger-pointing and excuse-making followed by nothing. Remember what happened to baseball great Hank Aaron just two weeks ago when he spoke a simple racial truth?
But the conversations on race we need to have are going to require more courage than what’s on display now. That’s because they will require trust, the ability to listen and an understanding of nuance as the hurts, grievances and fears of the person speaking flow forth. And we’re just not ready for that. As Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. perfectly put it in 2009, “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,” Holder said. “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.”
And then Holder said this:
As a nation we should use Black History Month as a means to deal with this continuing problem. By creating what will admittedly be, at first, artificial opportunities to engage one another we can hasten the day when the dream of individual, character based, acceptance can actually be realized. To respect one another we must have a basic understanding of one another. And so we should use events such as this to not only learn more about the facts of black history but also to learn more about each other. . . .
Our history has demonstrated that the vast majority of Americans are uncomfortable with, and would like to not have to deal with, racial matters and that is why those, black or white, elected or self-appointed, who promise relief in easy, quick solutions, no matter how divisive, are embraced. We are then free to retreat to our race protected cocoons where much is comfortable and where progress is not really made. If we allow this attitude to persist in the face of the most significant demographic changes that this nation has ever confronted- and remember, there will be no majority race in America in about 50 years — the coming diversity that could be such a powerful, positive force will, instead, become a reason for stagnation and polarization. We cannot allow this to happen and one way to prevent such an unwelcome outcome is to engage one another more routinely — and to do so now.
Lest you think Holder was just tossing racial hand grenades, I encourage you to read his entire speech. His was a thoughtful address that provides guidance on how to handle racial events on that coming day when no one is in the majority — and the need to be able to address instances of subtle racism as openly, honestly and forthrightly as blatant bigotry will be paramount.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj