Hillsdale, Michigan. After the George Zimmerman verdict, President Obama talked about the need for a conversation on race in the United States. He also made the sensible observation that such a conversation shouldn’t be facilitated by government:

I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.

I am not sure that the Porch is a place to have such a conversation since most of its chair rockers appear to be caucasian (don’t let my Gravatar image fool you). Mind you, I am not sure the climate in U.S. society will actually allow a meaningful discussion in public. The reason is that racism (despite the very shaky notion of race and its roots in some fairly shady aspects of Darwinian science) is one of the few sins for which citizens cannot receive forgiveness. Just ask Paula Dean. The other sin is the kind that Joe Paterno committed. The result is an environment that resembles one in which I have sometimes found myself with the missus — not knowing what I did wrong but not being able to discuss the matter until I discovered and confessed my crime.

I don’t mean this analogy to make light of race relations in the U.S. (nor of marriage if any of the sensitive family values crowd is reading). The treatment of persons of African descent (especially slaves) throughout U.S. history has been awful and current conditions for a large majority of African-Americans are not healthy. One of the difficulties in talking about race in the United States (and I am having to watch carefully what I write) is whether listeners will permit comparisons of the situation of blacks in the United States to other instance of prejudice — Jews in Europe, Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland, Irish-Roman Catholics in the United States. By what measure do you compare? If you compare, do you lessen the guilt or outrage? But if you don’t compare, do you represent accurately the circumstances confronting both whites and African-Americans living together (even if still segregated informally)? And if you don’t compare, can you fairly liken Trayvon Martin’s death to a lynching?

One useful point that William Saletan (via Rod Dreher) recently made about the Zimmerman case was that many commentators were transfixed on race and had missed the oversimplification of the entire affair:

They’re oversimplifying a tragedy that was caused by oversimplification. … [The killing] happened because two people — their minds clouded by stereotypes that went well beyond race — assumed the worst about one another and acted in haste. If you want to prevent the next Trayvon Martin tragedy, learn from their mistakes. Don’t paint the world in black and white. Don’t declare the whole justice system racist, or blame every gun death on guns, or confuse acquittal with vindication. And the next time you see somebody who looks like a punk or a pervert, hold your fire.

By the way, George Zimmerman’s ethnic heritage did not seem to count despite the favorable outcome for him in a justice system that has not been coherent on what to do with immigrants from the south of Texas.

Perhaps the conversation can happen if we listen to sports-talk radio. Seriously. Since I have written here before about the moral bankruptcy that afflicts any sports talk show that used to compete with Howard Stern, fairness requires that I also note when the hosts succeed.

A little back story, for those who are truly localists and don’t follow national or professional sports stories. (I hear Alex Rodriguez has been in a little trouble with Major League Baseball.) The Philadelphia Eagles’ wide receiver, Riley Cooper, was recorded yelling racial epithets at a concert sometime last year. He has apologized. But people wonder about his sincerity. Others wonder about the chemistry of a team on which the majority of players are African-American. Some say that if you use such language, even if drunk, you are revealing what is truly in your heart (as if the actual apology is not true). Last Friday on the show I love to hate, Angelo Cataldi interviewed Beasley Reece, a former defensive back for the New York Football Giants (for the history challenged, we used to have a New York Baseball Giants), and now the television sports anchor for the Philadelphia CBS affiliate. Reece grew up in Texas, heard epithets shouted at him, and lived to tell about it. More important, he seemed to learn to forgive.

It’s a remarkable interview.

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D. G. Hart is a visiting professor of history at Hillsdale College. After completing his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, he taught at Wheaton College and Westminster Seminary before directing academic programs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He is the author of several books, including A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (Ivan R. Dee); The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies and American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press); and From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelical Protestants and American Conservatism (Eerdmans).

17 COMMENTS

  1. I think the meaning of “racism” varies widely. An interesting test question to start. Is the Clint Eastwood character in *Gran Torino* a racist at the beginning of the film?

  2. Beasley’s comments are great.

    Saletan’s comments are also very good. I like that they challenge people to look a little longer, a little harder and to try to see beyond our default narratives.

    I’m not familiar with your body of work, but, this post, without any other context, reads, to me, as though you believe that the primary barrier to being able to talk about race is the failure of blacks to forgive whites?

    Also, this statement, “racism is one of the few sins for which citizens cannot receive forgiveness”, seems to start with an assumption of bad faith or unreasonableness. This assumption would seem to doom a difficult to approach conversation before it begins.

  3. The interview reveals Beasley Reese to be one of the wisest and most charitable public figures in America. As Dr. Hart implies, a meaningful conversation about race should begin with Mr. Reese’s words. (Credit also must be given to the hosts for their courage to ask awkward and difficult questions.) For such a conversation to continue, however, many whites must change their reactions to contemporary incidents of racism.

    Paula Deen, George Zimmerman, and now Riley Cooper have compelled many white pundits to acknowledge the evil of racism but only in general terms. These writers safely admit that generations ago blacks suffered both de facto and de juris racism and that even today some people in some cases evince some form of racial bias. Sadly, their cowardliness is evident when they diminish the significance of a specific white person’s committing a racist act for which he or she should be censured; moreover, they huff and puff with indignation when blacks fail to forgive the offender. Mr. Reese is generous to look for the best in Riley Cooper, but he is under no obligation other than that of his own conscience to extend the proverbial olive branch.

    In fairness, I recognize that racism, as Patrick states, exists in the hearts of many people regardless of their heritage. I also believe that Paula Deen and George Zimmerman have borne unjust accusations of race prejudice. Ms. Deen suffers because she rightly–but, perhaps, naively–admitted in a deposition to using the “n” word some 20 to 30 years ago. Her indiscretion occurred when she was half her current age! Like most of us, she is almost certainly a much different person today, a conjecture supported by the praise from her restaurant customers, many of whom are black. As for Mr. Zimmerman, the prosecution simply failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did anything other than use deadly force to defend himself even though he could have made different choices before he ever encountered Trayvon Martin. Decent people who live in high-crime areas are exasperated by the eternal threat of violence; as a neighborhood watchman, Zimmerman turned his exasperation into action. I would not have pursued Mr. Martin, but I do not live in a crime-ridden neighborhood, so I have no right to judge Mr. Zimmerman’s mindset.

    Other than drunkenness, no understandable cause can be ascribed Riley Cooper’s racist words. As a professional football player, Mr. Cooper was stupid to have been drunk in public because his job, whether he likes it or not, comes with the burden (and blessing) of being both a franchise representative and a role model. To have been so drunk that he could release his ugliest demons makes Mr. Cooper a man who should thank the Lord Our God that he shares the planet with a man like Beasley Reese. At the same time, it is the responsibility of whites whose voices fill the airwaves and newspapers to say unequivocally that this wide-receiver, at least for a moment, was a racist, and it is their Christian duty to expect nothing from the people who were cast into the emotional abyss of slavery and Jim Crow by his monstrous outburst.

  4. Ta-Nehisi Coates has this on Riley. The following is Coates setting up a quote from Riley and then commenting:

    –Eagles wide-receiver Riley Cooper was caught on tape threatening violence against a black security guard who didn’t allow him backstage at a Kenny Chesney concert. Cooper’s words were objectionable (“I will jump that fence and fight every nigger here, bro.”) But his words on returning to camp are some of the best I’ve seen from someone whose done or said something racist:

    “I told them, ‘I don’t want you to forgive me, because that puts the burden on you, and I want it all on me,'” Cooper said.

    This is really really important. A few years ago we had a discussion here about atonement, forgiveness and white guilt. My argument was that white guilt is a destructive force, and seeking “forgiveness” isn’t much better. As Cooper says it puts a moral burden on the injured party; the injured having already lost his dignity at the hands of the aggressor, is asked to give one more thing. I’d argue it’s better to seek forgiveness of oneself, to learn from one’s own wrongs. An apology made in hopes of getting something is already compromised. (Witness the era of “if I offended you.”)

  5. The idea of a “national conversation” on race is indeed nonsense, a waste of time; as a “cracker”, I’ve had it up to my eyeballs with being blamed, whether individually or collectively, for the ills of Black America. How am I supposed to have any form of rational conversation with a culture that’s largely devoted to its own destruction as evinced in its degradation of women and the family in its music and off-the-charts out of wedlock births? And those among them who don’t toe the party line of endless victimhood are themselves scorned. If they want to commit collective suicide, either literally or culturally, I want nothing to do with it!

    However, in the spirit of the Porch’s localism, I do agree that meaningful relationships with individuals of good will within our communities is the best way. In fact, most of us, Black or White, would do well to ignore what “national conversation” there is and tend to relations among our own families, neighbors and communities.

  6. The “national conversation” issued by media outlets and pundits is worthless, but enough local conversations could add up to a national conversation that is greater than the sum of its parts. Any conversation needs to have two components:

    1) Recognizing history for what it was, which was a lot more complex, varied, and nuanced than any flat black history stereotype or white supremacist stereotype or even any liberal kumbaya stereotype allows us to recognize.

    2) Having recognized the complexity (and many atroctities) of history, what to we do now? That is not a matter of guilty, apology, or forgiveness, except possibly for specific acts committed by individuals now living, talking to those who actually suffered direct harm from their own acts. Its about how we put our world together.

    How am I supposed to have any form of rational conversation with a culture that’s largely devoted to its own destruction as evinced in its degradation of women and the family in its music and off-the-charts out of wedlock births?

    You don’t. But you might talk to any of the millions of Americans of African descent who are not part of that culture. Ultimately, the white punks and the black punks are going to merge, and the rest of us are going to disconnect from them. That’s a big improvement over the days when white punks could rob industrious black middle class families with impunity, while black punks could claim the protection of the entire black population.

  7. They’re oversimplifying a tragedy that was caused by oversimplification. … [The killing] happened because two people — their minds clouded by stereotypes that went well beyond race — assumed the worst about one another and acted in haste.

    Rubbish. Trayvon Martin elected to beat up a local resident who had irritated him. He had no justification for so doing. He was killed because that resident was armed. George Zimmerman did not one thing ‘in haste’.

    The only liberals who appear to be able to discuss this case without adding to the world’s supply of humbug are members of the criminal defense bar.

  8. If George Zimmerman had been following me around the way HE TOLD POLICE HE HAD BEEN FOLLOWING MARTIN AROUND, I would have dialed 9-1-1. Martin, unfortunately, acted in pre-emptive self-defense. Sometimes the best defense is a good offense, but this one was poorly chosen. It is perfectly true that two people assumed the worst about one another and acted in haste. Ideally, both would have served a little time, and then a few years probation. Since Martin was dead, Zimmerman should have been convicted of negligent homicide, because he initiated the sequence of events that led to a death that, but for his rash and pompous action, would never have happened.

  9. You keep telling me that, and you have not convinced me that it is anything but a debater’s point. We have been over the facts, you have your fingers stuck in your ears.

  10. Well, if we disagree, then obviously you’re a racist!

    (Cue another tongue-in-cheek emoticon).

    Art my fellow human, you and I have been looking at exactly the same facts. We have come to different conclusions. There is little chance that you will convince me, or I you. What counts is not debating points. What counts is how many of our fellow citizens are persuaded by your argument, and how many are persuaded by mine. Or, most of our fellow citizens may reject both arguments and adhere to some 3d, 4th or 273rd alternative. Convincing you is rather low on my list of aspirations.

  11. I have argued that race is a proxy for two other issues, class and culture. Race and class are deeply tied together in our culture. The slaves owned nothing. The vast majority owned nothing after being freed. Segregation ensured that ownership was limited as much as possible. And now the welfare state keeps them poor more or less using the methods that Hilaire Belloc suggested it would or even worse. Race is not a nice story in our nation and neither the states nor federal government have been good at resolving the issues.

    The even larger issue is culture. If you look at the discussions of whether AAVE/Ebonics should be taught in schools, they come down to one of two attitudes. On the left, “maybe this will help build self-esteem” is about the most robust defence of such programs you will find (and what a lousy defence it is). More often you will see hostility to the way they speak with the idea that schools should only teach “proper English” as if we can prescribe such a thing. But maybe it isn’t about self-esteem. Maybe it is about looking out at the mirror of society and seeing an image coming back at you. Maybe it is about supporting culture and recognizing that while all cultures are imperfect they are also functional.

    Too often our nation sees culture as something to liberate minorities from. We wiped out many Native American languages, and we are trying to do the same to AAVE. Many on see this as progress. But in the end I have to say localism works. People will have their own ways of doing things, of speaking, of working, and of living. If we don’t accept that we put a great and terrible power in the hands of the state and expect good things to come out of it, but what we really get is eliminating voices from the discussion.

    What is really depressing to me is how multiculturalism, which started out as an effort to step away from this drive towards national uniformity caused by liberating minorities from culture, has turned into a way of trying to deny culture to everyone.

  12. Race attached to an economic and social condition is a proxy for class and culture. What is vicious about relying on race as a proxy for either is that it condemns people perfectly capable of defying the proxy, of advancing themselves intellectually, socially, economically, etc. from doing so. The backlash from affirmative action, is that the mooches and con artists, who exist in every race, will work it as long as it is available (as well as some deserving souls gaining some benefit).

    But Chris’s ultimate point is increasingly important: instead of getting use to the variety of cultures that do exist, whether we like it or not, we are being subjected to a desire for homogenization, of which “proper English” and “don’t act white” are two prominent examples. Standard English has its uses: its what we all learn so we can talk to each other across our local cultures.

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