Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second generation full of courage issue forth; let a people loving freedom come to growth.
I suspect I am like most black folk who have grown tired of considering the race question. I wish I might be permitted to live my life without being reminded of the narrow-minded and mean-spirited attitudes that still persist about race in this nation. It is a very simple desire and one that should be easily attainable. But, alas, I am a black man in America and despite my best efforts matters of race are not far from my daily reality.
I will preface with an admission that I do not have all of the facts, but it appears that within the past ten days, two white men have made statements related to race; one suggesting the desirability of slavery and the other suggesting the undesirability of social contact with African Americans. Both of these statements have caused a firestorm of commentary; the latter viewed as especially disturbing because the person accused of making the remarks is a high profile owner of a team in a sport dominated by African Americans. The media response has been swift and predictable with the requisite condemnation of the remarks. For most black folks of a certain generation, their response has been a collective yawn. Within the African-American community, there are few illusions about the persistent presence of racist attitudes.
These latest episodes give us a peek into the reality of life in 21st century America regarding matters of race. Further, the resulting reaction bring into bold focus the unsettling realization that black people and white people narrate and interpret their experience in the world very differently. To that we might overlay the historical relationship between black and white Americans and the complicated residual impact of the institution of slavery; what results is a sometimes fractious, contentious and uneasy coexistence that is always, it appears, vulnerable to assault and renegotiation occasioned by an incident or crude statements uttered in private and offered for public consumption.
Most of us have tried mightily and succeeded at individually forging genuine friendships and relationships with those who are racially different from us. And, this nation can be justifiably proud of its progress of racial harmony on that fundamental level. What continues to loom, however, is the broader realization that doggedly racist attitudes still exist. If we are black or if we are white, what is most troubling is that we still aren’t quite sure what are friends, colleagues and associates of a different race really think about us and what might be expressed in those unfiltered, private moments. It is this very real and intimate uncertainty that makes these statements so horribly wrong and disturbing. They so violently assault the vision of a world of common humanity many of us are committed to creating.
The reality is that deeply held attitudes about race are practically immune to change. Perhaps the best we can hope for is tacit recognition that, at least until a particular generation is gone, racist attitudes and beliefs will exist and that we must learn to live pragmatically within this reality. We might not be able to change attitudes but behavior we can modify. The resulting ridicule and public condemnation for these remarks are indeed appropriate. For those who would suggest that these gentlemen have a right to free speech, I would wholeheartedly agree. They do indeed have the right to say whatever they feel about black people and race relations. As a society that espouses civility and tolerance as important cultural values, we have the attendant right to sanction such speech and telegraph loudly that, in this society, such speech does not belong in the public square. It is unacceptable and antithetical to what we value and strive for as a nation of different races seeking, in earnest, to live harmoniously. There is still a lot of work to be done and I remain optimistic and hopeful despite these ugly utterances. My hope rests with the young people I see daily engaged in deliberate and meaningful interaction with those not like themselves and, in so doing, fully embrace the beauty and magnificence of human diversity.
To those who feel and think otherwise, I would simply say, keep your racist attitudes out of the public square and espouse them freely in the privacy and company of those who feel and think like you. Make sure, however, that they remain private because, as a society, we are prepared to sanction you accordingly when your words become public.