Why we are not going to have a Conversation on Race.

Why we are not going to have a Conversation on Race. February 13, 2019

When I teach my race and ethnicity class, I tell them that at some point during the semester we will have some type of national racial controversy. We are a country that goes from one racial controversy to the next. Of course the latest is the yearbook pictures of Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, who was found to have overtly racist pictures on his page in the yearbook. Yikes!!!

What happens whenever we have one of these episodes is that there will be calls for having a conversation on racial issues. Anyone who has followed my recent work knows that I am very big on having an honest conversation on racial issues. Indeed it has been the key component to breaking the awful cycle we have in this society where we move from one racial controversy to another. But I have next to no confidence that the Northam pictures will eventually spur any sort of useful conversation on racial issues.

Of all of the racial incidents to spur a meaningful conversation, it seems to me that the Northam photos are less likely to inspire that conversation than others. After all, who is really defending Northam? Both Democrats and Republicans want him removed from office, albeit for different reasons. There is no “other side” in this conversation. Very few people want to defend the use of blackface or wearing a KKK hood. Those who do are already marginalized from the larger society. If we are going to have a meaningful conversation, then it will have to be connected to real issues where there is legitimate disagreement between interested parties. This situation does not qualify.

But regardless of the specifics of the Northam controversy, I simply do not believe that Americans are willing to have an honest conversation on racial issues. We have issues where there are legitimate disagreements, and we have failed to have honest conversations on those issues. The way we approach racial issues prevents us from addressing these issues honestly. Until we confront the barriers preventing honest communication, we are doomed to lurch from one racial controversy to the next and to never find anything close to a stable solution.

Let me suggest that what is blocking us is our desire to defeat our political, social and racial opponents at the expense of having a real conversation. The attitude is about how we can leverage the current racial issue to make our opponents look bad. Seeking out political advantage is not compatible to having an honest conversation on racial issues. You can do one or the other, but you cannot do both.

Look at the Northam situation. Conservatives see a situation where they can embarrass progressives. They like the idea of linking the racism of Northam’s photos to the Democratic party. So do you think they are interested in a deep conversation on the history of blackface or how the lingering effects of our racist history still impact our culture? Nope. It is just time to play gotcha politics.

But I do not hold out hope for progressives to use this as a way to have a useful conversation either. Northam is an embarrassment for the political party that seeks to use charges of racism against Trump in 2020. The focus on ridding themselves of Northam is not to investigate the lingering vestiges of the old South, but to position themselves so that they can accuse Republicans of racism. This is not a situation that will lead to a productive conversation. How many productive conversations have you had with people who are simply seeking out ways to accuse you of being a racist?

If we had any hope of a productive conversation coming out of the Northam controversy, that time has past. Perhaps if the issue was fresh on our minds, there may have been an opportunity to start setting up some type of conversation. But now the political interests of Republicans and Democrats are well established, and we should not expect to see any fruitful discussion develop from this mess. So how could we turn the next racial controversy into a time of a real conversation? One word. Listen.

Have you notice that listening is what is missing when people talk about having a conversation on race? What people generally mean is that they want to tell other people how they feel and have those feelings respected. They may also expect others to support their causes after they have told them their feelings about racial issues. But that is only half of what is necessary for a productive racial conversation. The other half is to listen to what the other individuals have to say on the subject.

Without listening, we do not learn how to communicate with others nor do we understand their interests enough to craft real solutions that address the concerns of everyone. We quickly devolve into shouting matches and power plays to make sure that we, and people we agree with, have the power to get what we want. Of course our political and racial opponents do likewise, and the power struggle continues. It will continue right up until the next racial controversy in which time, some will say, “Can we have a conversation on racial issues?” But we know that they do not really mean it, since they really did not want to listen after the last racial controversy.

There are those who assert that they do not have to listen to others because they and their side is clearly right. My faith tradition emphasizes the fallen nature of humans. It makes me skeptical of anyone claiming to always be right. As such, we should all be able to learn from each other. Attitudes asserting that we have nothing to learn from those that think differently than we do help to perpetuate the racial divide in this nation.

So are we willing to do the hard work of talking and, just as important, listening to each other? The next time you see a talking head on television talk about our national conversation on race, consider whether that person would be willing to listen to his or her political opponents. If you conclude that the answer is no, then you can also conclude that the call for conversation is insincere.

I do want that honest conversation on race in the United States. I know that we have to engage in it to move towards dealing with the racial animosity that plagues us. But I am not going to fool myself into thinking that it is going to occur in this current social environment. The only way we are going to make it happen is to overcome our natural tendencies to try to one-up our opponents and actually listen to them. When that happens then, and only then, will we make real progress on racial issues in this nation.

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  • Alexandra

    You say that no one wants to listen to others. I’m curious what the two sides in a conversation about race ought to be listening to? What are the points that you would make? What are the points that the other side would make? hat is it that we need to hear from each other?

    • George Yancey

      I cannot speak to what others may say. We have to listen to them to find out.

    • georgeyancey

      I think it is not up to me to make the points of those from the other side. I probably could but that would be seen as defending them. So to understand how someone you disagree with understand an issue you have to engage in active listening to them and go from there. Then you would hear points that can produce better understanding of others.

      • Alexandra

        I have heard all of the complaints about how minorities are not assimilating, are not making sufficient efforts, etc, etc, etc. I have heard that whites ought to be proud, that whites are the victims of reverse racism, etc, ad nauseum.

        I truly don’t understand how active listening on my part can help here.

        • georgeyancey

          if you are serious then do this. Find someone who you disagree with and tell them what you think their motivations are. If you truly understand where they come from you can put it in your own words. If they agree that you have captured their reasoning then you are in a positon to be able to talk to them in a manner they can listen to you. But if they do not see themselves in your words then you may want to consider if you understand the positions you have been critiquing.

          • Nathaniel

            When you’ve critiqued positions on the you believe describe the left, have people responded by calling what you wrote accurate? How do your own writings meet this test?

          • George Yancey

            There is a difference between enunciating a person’s opinion and arguing about facts on the ground. Progressives arguing that they do not engage in dehumanizing behavior like the right is a factual argument and not one for understanding. If I describe how progressives understand a given issue and progressive disagree with me then I need to see where I have gone wrong.

          • georgeyancey

            They have argued about facts not about how their perspectives. When I argue that the left is as dehumanizing as the right that is a factual argument. If I mischaracterized how they perceive a issue then I need to make sure I listen to see if I am capturing how the perceive that issue. But if they want to dispute my assertions about facts in society then I need sufficient evidence to change my mind.

  • LastManOnEarth

    Let me get this straight… You’re knocking the Democrats because they are denouncing racism?

    • Nathaniel

      Democrats will never be praised on this blog. If he acknowledged any good behavior on their part for any issue, he wouldn’t be able intone that both sides are equally bad. And he’d renounce Jesus before giving up on that belief.

      • georgeyancey

        Really. And when have I praised conservatives on this page? I am pretty critical of both sides. That is what I do. If you want a blog that just praises Democrats and blast Republicans you have plenty of other choices to make.

        • chemical

          I think what LastMan and Nathaniel are getting at here is your attempt to be superior to both sides.

          Dems want Northam gone not because of the blackface — it’s how he handled his apology. Honestly, that incident was in 1984 or something. It’s 35 years ago, and Northam has a pretty solid record for standing up for civil rights. If Northam would have come out and said “Hey, look, that was dumb of me, and I’ve learned a few things since then” instead of what he actually did, he still wouldn’t have people calling for his resignation. We’re all human and all make mistakes, but Northam can’t seem to recognize that fact and chose to ignore a mistake he made decades ago.

          The focus on ridding themselves of Northam is not to investigate the lingering vestiges of the old South, but to position themselves so that they can accuse Republicans of racism.

          That’s really cynical, even by my standards. Here’s a radical idea: Perhaps they want to build a better America and they see racism as a barrier to that goal. Not everything is posturing for political influence.

          • georgeyancey

            Yeah. I am pretty cynical of politicians on both sides of the isle. Tell me that they would treat a Republican the same way they would treat a Democrat and then I may give up some of my cynicism. Just look at how mute the reaction is to Fairfax than it was to Kavanaugh for yet another example of the double standard. So no I don’t think that their only motivation is a better America, but also to keep their weapon of racism sharp for Republicans.

          • chemical

            Kavanaugh’s appointment has much larger consequences. He has a lifetime appointment, while Fairfax is only holding state office. Fairfax should resign, and there have been calls from the left for him to do so. Matter of fact, I believe it’s more important for Fairfax to resign than Northam.

      • LastManOnEarth

        Yep. This was just a particularly lame entry in the genre.

  • calduncan

    I learned long ago that when a liberal says, “Let’s have a conversation about X,” it means “I’m going to rant and scold you, and you’re going to nod and grovel.” A genuine dialogue is the last thing on earth that a liberal desires. Look at what they’ve done to impose censorship – “speech codes” and “bias incident reporting” – on most of America’s colleges. The communication of liberals to those who disagree with them is not like adult humans talking respectfully to each other, it’s like a human addressing a dog who has soiled the carpet again. They still haven’t figured out that this is one of the reasons that the Clinton woman lost the election. She had a rare moment of honesty when she referred to non-liberals as “deplorables.” That really is how they see us, although they frequently use much more colorful terms than “deplorable,” and I suspect that in private Hillary does too. She and other liberals never for a moment doubt that they are smarter and more moral than those who are not on their side.

  • Teresa Reitan

    I noticed in this article that at least half the time you called for having having “an honest conversation” about race, you switched the s and the v so that conversation came out “conservation” or even worse, “conservative.” I don’t know whether it was an honest typo, or whether you were creating a Freudian slip, but it certainly made for interesting reading. Which did you mean?

    • georgeyancey

      Thanks for pointing that out. I am going to go through and correct it now. One of the problems of overreliance of spell check.

  • billwald

    To put it crudely, One can’t talk about “Catism” and “Dogism” with people who refuse to talk about cats and dogs. Me, I think most dogs are “man’s best friends” and most cats are egocentric snots. That’s discrimination. Not prejudice. I have lived with cats and dogs.

    Of course, neither all dogs nor all cats have been created equal. Old story, pompous old man sees very young woman with a very large dog and asks, “Of what use is that dog?” She replies, “He isn’t a “use” dog.”

    And does anyone doubt that birds of a feather still flock together? It’s only domesticated animals that “miscegnate.” Puns intended.