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.