Can George Zimmerman lead to a Productive Conversation on Race?

One of the big issues in the past few weeks has been the criminal trial of George Zimmerman. In the aftermath of that trial there has been a great deal of argument about the rightness of the verdict and of the “stand your ground” law. To be honest I do not want to make comments on either of those issues. I have found a lot of the discussion on these issues to not be very productive. But there is one aspect that has risen after the Zimmerman trial that I do want to consider. After the Zimmerman trial, there has been a lot of talk about having a conversation on race. Some argue that unless we have this conversation then we will soon see more racial tension from another incident. I agree that unless those of different races communicate with each other that racial misunderstanding and alienation will continue. However, I am skeptical that this current call for a conversation will create that channel for communication.

I know something about having a conversation across different racial groups. I worked in the area of racial reconciliation for about fifteen years. I have done my share of the hard work it takes to create an atmosphere where real understanding develops between racial groups. I have seen conversations that helped create the type of racial healing some are talking about. Although I now work in a different research area and towards a calling distinctive from racial reconciliation, I will always have a heart to see our society overcome the racial divide that has troubled us for so long. So I should be very excited at the prospect of an emerging conversation on racial issues.

And yet I am not excited about this possible conversation. I am doubtful that it will do us any good. I am reminded that we have had other attempts to have a conversation on racial issues and those efforts do not seem to have helped. Merely wanting to have a conversation on racial issues is not a guarantee that we will create an atmosphere of racial understanding. In fact some conversations can actually make our racial situation worse. Why am I fearful that these calls for conversations may lead to a worsening racial situation? I believe it is because I have my doubts that these calls for conversations are for honest discourse on racial issues. It is important for parties to be willing to talk and listen to each other. Those consistently calling for a conversation do not talk about listening to others, but seem to focus just on what they want to say. I think this is how they see the talk on race going.

Activist: We need to talk about race
Person of different race: OK
Activist: You need to know A, B and C
Person of different race: Wow, I did not know all of this.
Activist: Since you now know A, B and C we need to do D and F for our society.

Person of different race: You are right. I am so glad we had this talk. You have taught me so much.
This may be the way people see the conversation going, but this is not the way an honest talk on race will go. People from different sides of the racial spectrum have contrasting, and deeply set, ideas about racial issues. They hope that when they tell others their point of view that other people will almost automatically accept their view as truth. What we often do not realize is that while our point of view seems logical to us that it is not that way for all individuals. Other people have their own concerns and interests which do not correlate to ours and if we really want to have this conversation then we had better be ready to honestly hear where other people are coming from. I am not convinced that those who want to have this conversation are ready to provide much respect for what others have to say and thus expect the one side conversation I stated above.

It is not fair that I just critique current efforts at a conversation on racial issues. I should also offer possible solutions that can set us up for this conversation. To that end I am grateful for the chance to have worked with Michael Emerson on Transcending Racial Barriers before I stopped doing research on racial issues. In that book we outlined principles and a process by which a productive racial conversation becomes possible. In that spirit I offer up these points for those who want a real interracial conversation that may result in breaking down racial barriers.

1) Define the problem – First thing that has to be done is that the issue of concern has to be carefully defined. Emerson and I suggest that we have to clarify what we want to discuss and keep our conversation in the context of that particular issue. We all have had discussions where we start on one subject and then jump to other subjects before we really finish discussing the subject at hand. We contend that our conversation on race will require the discipline necessary to stick to a given subject and a one subject at a time approach.

2) Identify what we have in common – There is no use in glossing over the differences between activists from different racial groups. But we also have important values in common with each other. Identifying what we agree on is an important way to start a meaningful conversation. Let us not assume the worst of those who disagree with us. They agree on certain values that we have and knowing this can help humanize those we want to have a conversation with.

3) Recognize our differences – Of course if we agreed on everything then all of this talk about needing a conversation would be meaningless. We have to be honest about why we differ from each other and why. At this point it is important to not only enunciate how we disagree with others, but why we have the concerns that we do. Clearly pointing out why we have developed the concerns we have is important so that all parties have a chance to understand why we have our points of contention.

4) Create solutions that answer the concerns of those we disagree with – Here is where our listening skills become very important. If the only thing we want to do is tell people how we feel and expect them to agree with us then our conversation will break down into yelling at each other. But if we have really been listening to the concerns of others then we will be in a position to articulate ways we can have our concerns addressed that also help those we are in conversation with to know that their concerns will be addressed as well. Of course our proposed solutions will tend to address our concerns more than the concerns of others. That is why we need the last step.

5) Find the compromised solution that best addresses the needs of all parties – If both African-American activists and white conservatives each develop solutions that address the concerns of the other group, those solutions are not likely to be the same. They will each develop solutions that more closely solve their concerns than the concerns of the other group. But they will be solutions more similar than the positions each started out with because there will have been an attempt to meet the needs of those in the other group. This will make it easier to combine those proposed solutions to come up with the compromise solution that they can live with. In any compromise no one will get all that they want, but hopefully all will receive enough so that they can accept and support the solution.

It is not surprising that individuals may not want to use such a system of compromise to set up a conversation. It takes hard work to truly listen to others and attempt to address their concerns. We would much rather try to force them to accept our perspectives as truth and to use political capital to force them to capitulate to our desires. But that is an effort that leads to failure. It will lead to failure because if we force others to capitulate to our plans without working with them to find a compromise solution, then we institutionalize enemies to our approach to racial issues. Those enemies are committed to defeating our approach because they will feel like they did not have a say in constructing the solutions we are implementing. This is why finding a solution through some type of mediated conversation that considers the ideas of all concerned interest groups is vital to creating a solution where everyone has some degree of skin in the game and will work to make the solution a success.

I realize that all of this is theoretical and that I have not offered a concrete example of how such a process can work. Furthermore, the space limitations of doing a blog do not allow me to fully fill in all the details of these steps. In our book Emerson and I do go through these steps with more details and illustrate with an example. My doubts about current calls for conversations emerge from my doubts that those calling for that conversation are willing to make those commitments. But hopefully providing this outline of the process will indicate the sort of commitments that have to be made for a real conversation that will move the needle forward on racial issues.


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