Speaking, or writing, about race in America is almost always an exercise fraught with risk and anxiety. Because we each bring our own racial identity to the table, our own experiences and perspectives, our own preconceptions and expectations of other races, we almost always struggle with overcoming our own obstacles to express our views. Maybe we’re afraid of offending so we salt our statements with ample disclaimers. Maybe we’re enraged so we salt our statements with hyperbolic adjectives. Maybe we’re confused and salt our statements with conflicting viewpoints. Maybe we’re so wrapped up in our own experience that we close our ears to the stories of those we’re trying to talk to. Likely we’re a combination of some or all of these things and as a result our attempts at talking about anything race-related are uncomfortable at best. The result? We do as much as we can to not talk about race in anything but the most generic terms.
Then we have something happen like the Charleston shootings of this week, or the events in Ferguson and Baltimore in the last few months, and race catapults to the top of our minds and the tip of our tongues. We can’t avoid addressing it and that’s when a great divide appears between us. That’s when we most need for people who can articulate the issues in a way that helps us better understand them. but unfortunately that’s when opportunists, the self-appointed leaders of their constituencies, appear on camera claiming they represent the whole of their race and instantly closing the ears of just about everyone. (How long do you think it will be before Al Sharpton shows up in Charleston?) That’s also when those who would like anything but reconciliation, the haters, step up with a megaphone and barf their venomous propaganda all over the rest of us.
Then there’s the matter of talking about guns in our country. The reaction to mass shootings like those in Charleston (and Connecticut, Virginia, Colorado, etc.) is depressingly predictable and divisive. It is near impossible to have a conversation about guns without it spiraling into a heated, virulent argument in which no one seems to think there’s some point between absolute freedom to own ANY weapon or a total ban on weapons.
In its own way gun control as a topic is as divisive as race and when you combine the two topics, as you most definitely are when you start to address the shootings in Charleston, you have the recipe for a witches brew of misunderstanding and divisive rhetoric.That’s why it’s so important that we DO have people who can say what’s needed in a way that we can all hear and understand. Once again the comedian shows us the way:
And then there’s this from David Remnick on President Obama’s reaction to the events in Charleston:
Obama is a flawed President, but his sense of historical perspective is well developed. He gives every sign of believing that his most important role in the American history of race was his election in November, 2008, and, nearly as important, his reëlection, four years later. For millions of Americans, that election was an inspiration. But, for some untold number of others, it remains a source of tremendous resentment, a kind of threat that is capable, in some, of arousing the basest prejudices.
Obama hates to talk about this. He allows himself so little latitude. Maybe that will change when he is an ex-President focussed on his memoirs. As a very young man he wrote a book about becoming, about identity, about finding community in a black church, about finding a sense of home—in his case, on the South Side of Chicago, with a young lawyer named Michelle Robinson. It will be beyond interesting to see what he’s willing to tell us—tell us with real freedom—about being the focus of so much hope, but also the subject of so much ambient and organized racial anger: the birther movement, the death threats, the voter-suppression attempts, the articles, books, and films that portray him as everything from an unreconstructed, drug-addled campus radical to a Kenyan post-colonial socialist. This has been the Age of Obama, but we have learned over and over that this has hardly meant the end of racism in America. Not remotely. Dylann Roof, tragically, seems to be yet another terrible reminder of that.
Nearly all of South Carolina was in mourning Thursday. Flags were at half-mast. Except the Confederate flag, of course, which flew high outside the building where Tillman still stands and the laws of the state are written.
I’m with Jon Stewart in feeling confident that nothing will change as a result of Charleston, or the dozens of similar events that have preceded it, or the dozens of similar events that are sure to follow. Why? Because change comes only when enough of us want it, and right now there just aren’t enough people who want it. Too many people benefit from the racial divide, from scaring the crap out of people – “They’ll take your guns, rape your women, steal your jobs… – and playing both sides to the middle for any real change to happen. The odds of that changing in my lifetime are minuscule and shrinking by the day, but my hope is that my children and their children can fix what the rest of us have so royally screwed up.