If you want to have a good debate or scare people away, then start talking about race. The ‘race’ word is a powerful one in America’s lexicon and seems to bring out passionate feelings in us. It is a catalyst for both change and status quo. It is my thinking that the word race has brought into context words such as diversity, multiculturalism and inclusion, just to name a few. Many in this country would say that we are simply hung up on race. However, I think our racial healing, or hemorrhaging, is generational. Finally, it seems, young people are not as race-conscious as previous generations, although some may disagree with this statement. What makes the color of a person’s skin the object of so much attention and speculation? Why do some of us base our perceptions about a person solely on their skin color? As we all know, a person’s ability is not based on their skin color but on their competence and cognition. Yet, unfortunately, there are those who will go to their grave thinking otherwise. The uneasiness about race is felt on both sides. Many of our positions and mores about race come from our own experiences. Some of these feelings about race cannot be altered or changed regardless of how many diversity training programs we attend.
Some of our differences as black and white people are quite striking, most notably our responses to race. I have both black and white friends, and my life is better because of it. But there have been incidents in this country involving race that have elicited such divergent responses I sometimes wonder, “are we looking at the same thing?” So we see things through different lens. There is also an extreme view held by each side about race relations. Some blacks and whites see their own race as the good guys and the other race as the bad guys. I disagree with this view, yet you would be naïve to think that it doesn’t exist.
Race is a slippery slope. Racial attitudes and positions seem to always follow us. Race never takes a break and is like the famous convenience store; it is always open. If you recall just a month ago now a white woman in Pennsylvania alleged that a black man had kidnapped her. We later found out that she was at Disney World. More recently a group of black children were asked to leave a swimming pool for reasons shrouded in race. Both incidents involved race and bad behavior.
So now just a few weeks ago, there was the incident involving Henry Louis Gates, Jr. the Harvard professor. Reports said that Professor Gates, who is black, had trouble getting into his house. He did get into his house yet by this time the Cambridge, Mass., police had arrived because of a 911 call placed by a local citizen. The police tape of the call never mentioned race, however the police report did. Officer James Crowley, who is white, and Professor Gates had a heated exchange even after Gates showed he was the owner of the home. Professor Gates was taken to the police station in handcuffs. However, throughout all of this we cannot forget that the police are there to protect and to serve whether it is in Cambridge or any other part of the country. Yet I wonder why the police could not have left Gates’ home once proper identity had been established. Because race is so explosive an issue, President Obama having a news conference on health care and other important matters was asked about the incident. President Obama, in my opinion and later by his own admission, used inappropriate language in responding to the reporter’s question. The three men, President Obama, Officer Crowley and Professor Gates met recently at the White House to hash out their differences and hopefully bring some constructive focus to the issue of race.
A lot of Americans are waiting to see if there is a blue print on how to talk about race. Fortunately, many communities have already started the conversation. It is my opinion that the rules of engagement ought to center around honesty, forthrightness and recognition of the need to get it out in the open.
Race and all of its complexities will not go away. If we want our communities to become better then we must be proactive in talking about our differences. Communities that understand each other better will prosper. Those that don’t won’t.
James B. Ewers, Jr. Ed.D is a higher education consultant and the author of Perspectives From Where I Sit: Essays on Education, Parenting and Teen Issues.