I don’t like to write about things that everyone else is already discussing. The recent constant discussions of race, however, are mostly interesting in what they don’t say. Unless that silence is broken, we are missing yet another opportunity to wrestle intelligently with this issue.
Race is a damned ticklish issue. It is a cauldron of dehumanization, class conflict, fear, oppression, and mutual ghettoization. It’s no surprise that otherwise-fearless thinkers stay away from this issue, since almost any statement is potentially inflammatory or, at the least, insensitive and wrong.
What we get instead are non-discussions of race. We get knee-jerk outrage that racism still exists. (Did that sad-sack neighborhood vigilante unfairly assume that every black teenager is a criminal? Let’s put him on the pillory and congratulate ourselves that such medieval thinking exists only among a few rednecks living in dogtrot shacks, shall we?). We get sanitized courthouse commentary — hell, we got an entire second-degree-murder trial — in which the issue of race is carefully avoided. It is as if we fear that if we look too long at this issue, we’ll become pillars of salt, white and black.
An Internet meme recently buzzed past, in which an Episcopal bishop is credited with saying, “I want to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home to get him out of the rain that night.” Jesus H. Tap-Dancing Christ On A Cross, Bishop. Every person who has forwarded this meme down the line is basically looking down primly from a moral high ground at the unfortunate deluded few whose hearts, heavy with hatred, can be lightened only by the Rapture. ’cause, we sure aren’t living in that world now; and, dreaming of The Rainbow Connection isn’t likely to get us there anytime soon.
So, what is it that we’re not talking about when we don’t talk about race?
Example One: At the Florida trial, the victim’s friend Rachel Jeantel testified that the victim had told her that he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker.” For a moment at least, the issue of racial distrust and fear was a part of the trial. And then, the curtains closed. The witness swore on cross-examination that there was nothing racial about the term “cracker.” Partisans filled the yammering Internet with gotcha comments, arguing that the scales were now balanced because the dead kid had used the word “cracker” before he was shot through the heart. It’s OK…EVERYBODY’S a racist! No harm, no foul!
No one, it seems, wanted to discuss the uncomfortable significance of a black teenager feeling nervous about being followed by a “cracker.” No one wanted to talk about the experience of a black kid as a sometimes resident of “The Retreat At Twin Lakes,” a formerly-all-white gated community where a rash of petty crime was being blamed on the few black residents. This is Sanford, Florida, where in 1946 Jackie Robinson and his Dodgers farm team were confronted by Klan members, where the mayor ordered Robinson not to play, and where Robinson had to leave town in the middle of the night to avoid violence. You bet it’s significant that the man following Trayvon Martin around the Retreat At Twin Lakes was a creepy cracker. But, that’s something it seems we don’t care to talk about.
Example Two: Two Washington Post columnists have become lightning rods in the past week, for writing about the fear and mistrust that middle-class whites might have when encountering young black men. On July 15, Richard Cohen’s column invited politicians to “own up to the painful complexity of the problem and acknowledge the widespread fear of crime committed by young black males,” whom he said are “understandably suspected” of being criminals because they are overwhelmingly the people who are arrested for committing crimes. (Some years earlier, Cohen had defended D.C. jewelers who locked black window-shoppers out of their stores because, “especially in cities like Washington and New York, the menace comes from young black males. Both blacks and whites believe those young black males are the ones most likely to bop them over the head”). The next day, columnist Kathleen Parker wrote that it is only “human nature” and “common sense,” not racism, to be wary of young black men if young black men have been committing crimes in your apartment complex.
These two columns have produced a shitstorm of malevolence. Everyone, it seems, believes themselves to be too smart and pure of heart to give in to this sort of “human nature.” Everyone, it seems, knows that what Cohen and Parker wrote is misanthropic racism. And yet, if that were true, then the Bishop’s dreamy offer-a-ride-home world has already come. The fact is, that world hasn’t come. In the screwed-up real world, many white people cross the street nervously when they see a group of young black men. They carry deep misgivings, stereotypes, and fears, which are so socially unacceptable that they are never aired and therefore are never dispelled. It is truly the hate that dare not speak its name.
So, here’s the thing. As long as our response to race is a glib “ebony and ivory together in perfect harmony”…as long as we choose to tell the tall tale that we live in a colorblind society rather than discuss the truth of racial fear and mistrust…as long as we rely on saccharine memes about George Zimmerman offering Trayvon Martin a Coke and a smile…then we will never have a meaningful discussion of race. We certainly aren’t having one now.