Can race-talk really make a difference?

By the end of President Bill Clinton’s town hall meeting on race in
early December, his audience had deteriorated to platitudes and
cliches. I half-expected Rodney King to jump out of the Akron audience
and plead, again, “Can’t we all just get along?”

Don’t get me wrong. Although I’m a skeptic, I hope the President’s
Advisory Board on Race can make some difference in our nation’s racial
climate and, more importantly, offer initiatives that will close the
racial economic gap. But some of the conversation seemed so hackneyed
and tired that I was almost overwhelmed by my sense of deja vu: “Been
there, done that, had that conversation before.”

At the end of the President’s race summit, the audience started
bringing up home truths and basics. It depends on home environment,
they said. It depends on education. People talk about home environment
and education as if they are things to be settled in a vacuum. If
people had more education, some say, there would be less racism. If
people had better home environments, there would be a bit less too.

I found myself frustrated by the way the conversation had drifted,
and found myself wondering whether race-talk can really make a
difference. Do we really change minds and hearts through conversation?
Are people actually honest in their thoughts? And what happens when
they express thoughts that are hurtful or “politically incorrect?”

The President’s Advisory Board on Race reconvened in Virginia, on
December 17 at Annandale High School in Fairfax County – a high school
in a district that Clinton has touted as remarkable for its racial
tolerance. Although much of the conversation was reported as rather
benign, this meeting was marred by an ugly outburst from a White man
(with reported ties to David Duke) who vocalized that which has been

“We’re going to be a minority soon,” he shouted disruptively. “There’s no one up there that’s talking about the White people!”

Robert Hoy, the White man with attitude, was escorted from the
school auditorium by police officers, but conversation about his point
continued. Some people felt Hoy’s point was well taken, if only because
he said things that others feel, but do not say.

Does picking at a scab really heal a wound? In October, I spoke at a
diversity event at a Michigan State University. My talk was followed by
an “alternative view” by a man who appeared to be White and who
attempted to deconstruct my talk with points like Hoy’s: “What will
happen to White people?” The man’s talk was billed as a psychodrama,
and in the course of the drama he was rude and dismissive of women,
African Americans, Native people, Latinos, and others. Then, people
were asked to go into small groups and talk. Several hours later when
two Native American professors drove me to the airport, they were still
stunned and angry at the tone and tenor of the response to my talk on
diversity. They felt it served no purpose.

I have mixed feelings. I think talk is a first step, but it is not
enough. Talk can inform. It can sensitize. But I am not sure that it
can change people. However, I do not think that talk can hurt. That’s
why I am looking forward, with some interest, to yet another dialogue
on race.

The National Days of Dialogue on Race Relations are scheduled to
take place between January 14 and 19, 1998, in twenty cities around the
United States in the days preceding the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Several national organizations have worked to create the Days of
Dialogue, including the National Urban League, the National Council of
La Raza, the Society for Professional Dispute Resolution, and others.

One of the moving forces behind the Days of Dialogue is Los Angeles
City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who first called for conversations
like these in October, 1995. He and former Senator Bill Bradley will
chair the talks in Los Angeles. Conversations will also take place in
San Francisco, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Denver, Pittsburgh,
Detroit, and other cities. A D.C. – based organizing office for
National Days of Dialogue has been established and can be reached at
(202) 822-6343, or on the Internet at

Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. has made the most important point
about race-talk when he asked those leading the talks to distinguish
between race-talk and race-entertainment. One might argue that much of
the dialogue about the O.J. Simpson case was about entertainment, not
information, and that much of the talk about Latrell Sprewell’s
one-year suspension from the National Basketball Association falls into
the same category.

One might note that the most powerful subjects for discussion –
economic justice and reparations – have not been addressed in many of
the conversations on race.

It also amazes me that, given the recent release of the film
“Amistad,” instances of resistance to racism are not more fully
explored. Such talk moves [is an element African Mexican American
people from the position of simple victims to the position of
outnumbered, oppressed people who fought back.

Let’s face it, race-talk is more than linking hands and singing
seven verses of “Kumbaya.” But few of the visionaries who are
participating in the conversations have thought about what the world
should look like after we’ve talked out. Should there be reparations?
Continued affirmative action? A monument to slavery? An apology?

The academic community must be involved in a conversation that
addresses the steps that come after talk. When some of our race-talk is
linked to solutions, not the simple painful act of “letting it all hang
out,” then it will make a difference.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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