Charlene Drew Jarvis, former D.C. Council member and former president of Southeastern University, delivered an address to the Metropolitan Chapter of the Links Inc. at the time of last Saturday’s March for Justice that discussed the issue of women and the contradiction affecting the relationship between whites and blacks in our culture.

Some of her observations warrant repeating:

“Women have progressed in the roles we play in the society as high-powered investment advisors, as CEOs, as Mayors, as sports commentators, as utility crew managers, as forensic experts, as engineers, as movie directors and screen writers.
Women have progressed in our numbers in colleges and universities; we are the majority in many institutions of higher education, and in professional schools.
Women have progressed in the roles we play in families, sharing more of the responsibilities with spouses or partners.
And yet, it seems contradictory that we read more and more about rape on college campuses and incidences of violence against women.
So we ask….
Is there really an increase in the incidence of such violence? If there is an increase in violence against women, is it a reflection of anger in the changing roles of men in the society?
That thought really makes you go “hmmmm”.
Or is there now less societal tolerance for existing behavior and, therefore, more reporting by both victims and the media? If that is so, there is no contradiction, but an indication of the power of change in the society.
Is there a change in the nomenclature for certain acts of violence in which an alleged serial rapist can be seen as having a mental illness called somnophilia, a disorder characterized by perverse acts of dominance over women as they sleep.
But I digress.
We say “bravo” to all the smart, achieving women and men in this room who are raising young men to respectfully acknowledge the changing roles of women in the society.
Let’s turn now to the progress of African Americans in the society.
Many studies indicate that most African Americans still lag far behind their white counterparts in economic well-being, the wealth gap, if you will.
And yet our brown faces have become much more frequent in TV ads, in careers, and in many phases of life.
And the curtain of invisibility behind which we have lived for so long has been pulled back, surprising and disturbing some of the most well-meaning whites. Recall the “I had no idea” comment of television host Chris Matthews when President Obama indicated that he, too, had been subjected to stereotyping.
And pulling back the curtain of invisibility has confounded many who believed they could continue their patterns of discrimination with anonymity. Consider the arrest and homicides of African American men by rogue or insensitive police officers that has been discussed since the Ferguson spotlight.
More whites seem to understand the concept of “stereotype threat” under which African Americans live. Such a threat is the tendency to ascribe to all of us the characteristics of the least admirable of us, or to ascribe demeaning stereotypes. Even President Obama, US Attorney Eric Holder, and Montgomery County Executive, Isaiah Leggett, haven’t escaped from such threat.
But, as Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has written about white privilege, “One element of white privilege today is obliviousness to privilege, including a blithe disregard of the way past subjugation shapes present disadvantage in African Americans. “And also, he said, “to the degrees to which… young black men …face continuing bias in law enforcement and the justice system and employment……
As Kristof has also shown, even in the face of strong data indicating the ongoing disparities, many whites are simply resistant to the idea that they have had a role to play in the disparities, preferring instead to believe in the failure of responsibility in the black community.
My recent comments at former Mayor Marion Barry’s funeral indicate the different screens which blacks and whites use in interpreting language. I said to the predominantly African American audience, “If you want to honor Marion Barry, do something!; if your community is in distress, do something!”
African Americans heard the call to social activism; some whites heard the call as a needed admonition to blacks to finally accept responsibility.
And, after all, they said, haven’t we elected a black President?
The contradiction here is that race relations seem to be going backward….more hate, more resentment, more obstruction, more gun ownership.
I read an interesting article recently in the Smithsonian magazine by Paul Theroux. Theroux had taken a long tour through many small towns in the South. He wrote about the psychological underpinning of gun ownership in one of those towns, Greensboro, Alabama.
Theroux wrote, after attending a gun show, “And that was when I began to understand the mood of the gun show. It was not about guns. It was not about ammo, not about knives. It was not about shooting lead into perceived enemies. The mood was apparent in the way these men walked and spoke: They felt beleaguered, weakened, their backs against the wall. How old was that feeling? It was as old as the south perhaps.”
“The Civil War battles might have happened yesterday for these particular Southerners, who were so sensitized to intruders and gloaters and carpetbaggers, and even more so to outsiders who did not remember the humiliations of the Civil War: The passing of the family plantation was another failure, the opportunistic politicians, the outsourcing of local industries, the disappearance of catfish farms, the plunge in manufacturing, and now this miserable economy in which there was no work and so little spare money that people went to gun shows just to look and yearn for a decent weapon that they’d never be able to buy….”
“The gun show wasn’t about guns and gun totin”, he continued. “It was about the self-respect of men – white men, mainly, making a symbolic last stand.”
So, did Obama’s election start this perceived backward motion in race relations, or did it simply pull back the curtain on this psychological dimension of a conquered people in the south?
Let’s ask another question: can the election of President Obama account for the changing positive attitudes toward African Americans in this country?
Taking a page from another book, Chris Rock was interviewed in a recent Vulture magazine article. His take on changing attitudes toward people of color was interesting.
The interviewer asked: “And you think this (positive) change (in attitude) is generational? That it may have nothing to do with Obama?”
Chris Rock’s response was, “It’s partly generational, but it’s also my kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black secretary of state, a black joint chiefs of staff, a black attorney general. My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people.”
He continued, “So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There have been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years…..the advantage my children have is my children are encountering the nicest white people that America ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.” (Keep in mind the audiences of this comedian when you read this statement).
The narrative about race is changing. Witness the CBS national news just last night in which two young whites acknowledged that they never had to think about race as they went about their daily lives, but they understood that the African Americans on the panel think about race all-of-the-time. Their ability to empathize, to put themselves in the shoes of African Americans, is a very important part of better communication between the races.
So, as the conversation and the work continue, let us all remember that we have a chance to participate in changing our society.
Have you ever listened to the Jackson Brown song, “Standing in the Breach’? It is appropriate at Christmas.
It says. “And though the earth may tremble and cast our works aside
And though our efforts resemble the fluctuation tide
We rise and fall with the trust and belief
That love redeems us each
And bends our backs and hearts together standing in the breach.”