There are three people at my church who come to mind right now. The one I've known longest is a very outspoken, opinionated elderly black woman, a lifelong or "cradle" Episcopalian, whose mother was a teacher and civil rights activist in her Midwestern hometown. The second is a large, loud, sometimes abrasively outspoken middle-aged, openly gay white man who has taken radical positions on matters of race and sexuality, and who has no patience with those who embrace more temperate positions. The third is an octogenarian retired black professional, veteran of Selma and Birmingham, who has been very outspoken in pushing for a "dialogue on race" in our congregation and community.
The first of those three, the woman, barely speaks to me anymore, not since I had the gall to challenge her assertion that the Latin language is based on Greek. After that, it was obvious to her that I was lying about my academic background, and she has no patience with liars. I remember one time, after the meeting of a committee on which she and I served together, that she warned me darkly that I shouldn't think that "those [white] people in there are your friends. They aren't. They'll smile and nod their heads to your face, but any time they can put you down as a black man, they will."
I've had several run-ins with the second person, the openly gay white gentleman from the South. I clearly remember our first: Soon after coming to St. John's, he was going on and on about what an awful, racist, homophobic city Portland, Oregon, is, as anyone who's ever spent time there would obviously know. I'll admit that if I had known him then as I know him now, I'd have kept my mouth shut, but I'd just met the man, and didn't realize that I shouldn't have expressed the fact that my experience of that city and the rest of the Northwest was not at all as he'd described, that I love that city and that area, and that I have very fond memories of the years I spent there. Boy, why did I say that? I mean, you could almost have seen the steam coming out of his ears, I'm sure his blood pressure shot into the stratosphere, and he could barely contain himself. There followed a series of emails from him in which I was informed, among other things, that Portland is full of "gay people who want to be straight," and "black people who want to be white," and that the racism and homophobia of the area were so well known to People In The Know that...never mind, I was obviously too dense or ignorant ever to have even heard of the obscure academics he seems to have a knack for quoting. Never mind the fact that I've been a gay black man in Portland and have legions of gay and black friends who live quite happily there (thank you very much); he and the radical black writers whom he's fond of quoting know what it's really like to be truly, authentically black and gay; I don't.
Those are two of the people whose friendship and maybe even civility I am surely going to lose after they read this post, or the part that they read before they trash the whole thing. But the reaction which will probably bother me the most will be that of my friend, the retired professional, who is a strong proponent of what I uncharitably refer to as "1960s-era liberal orthodoxy."
What the three of them seem to have in common is that they view the world through the prism of race, which is characteristic of that old "liberal orthodoxy." So, to them, most of the problems we have in America today are mainly because of the racial prejudices of whites, and any time a white person disagrees with a black person it is because the white person is a racist. Of course, the black person can never be a racist.
To those people, any opposition to President Obama and his policies is because he's black; never mind that he's from the left flank of the Democratic Party, and that's just not where most Americans are politically. It's because he's black. Any black person, especially a politician, who disagrees with the President is a self-hater, an Uncle Tom, a House Niggah. Ignore the fact that many blacks are politically and socially conservative for exactly the same reasons that many whites are; those black men and women couldn't possibly have arrived at the same conclusions and positions that some whites have, because they're, well, different. They see Mia Love or JC Watts or Russell Perry (look him up!) first and mainly as African Americans, so as having much more in common with the late Tupac Shakur or Dennis Rodman or Snoop Lion (I think that's his name this week) than they would have with Marco Rubio or Sarah Palin or George Will.
And then, there's the catalyst for much of our anguish and breast-beating over race in recent weeks: The killing of Trayvon Martin. Was that an example of how race relations are at such a low point in American life? Was there, as another member of my church, a highly-respected, white female professor at a prominent local university, has stated, "a racial component to what transpired"? Here's what I think: I do not believe that this incident started out as being about race, but it was made to be so. I fully understand why many people have pointed out George Zimmerman's own ethnic background as evidence that he wasn't acting from a racial standpoint (for those who don't know, his maternal grandfather was as black as I am, and his high school prom date was a black girl).
Make no mistake about it: Trayvon Martin should not have been killed as he was. I don't care about either man's past run-ins with the law; that's totally irrelevant to me, so I don't even consider them. There are two and only two things which I do consider important here:
- We're asked repeatedly by Zimmerman supporters to consider the mindset of Mr. Zimmerman as he fought with a younger, larger, probably stronger man; didn't he fear for his life? Maybe so, and maybe I, too, would have shot to injure or kill a younger, stronger man who I felt jeopardized my life. But I also have to consider young Trayvon's state of mind. I remember how shocked and frightened I was as a teenager when "creepy-looking" men got too "friendly" with me. One time, I was absolutely paralyzed with fear when a strange, "creepy-looking" man followed me into the men's room in a movie theater, and I never went into that restroom again. I can't count the number of times I ran home in fear because some "creepy-looking" man was following me. And I was an ugly, skinny little sissy, not a healthy-looking young man like Trayvon. And he wasn't a sissy; it's probably not politically correct to point out that, if some "creepy-ass" strange male was following him, it's not likely that he would have run home as I did. He probably would have done exactly what George Zimmerman said he did: He would have confronted and maybe even attacked the guy who was following him for no good reason that he could see.
- Which brings me to my second point: The 911 operator told Mr. Zimmerman very clearly that they didn't need him to follow the young man, that police were on the way. If he'd shown the superior maturity that he presumably had over that of a 17-year-old, and followed the suggestion of the operator, Trayvon Martin would probably be alive today.
So, what is this suddenly-urgent dialogue on race going to accomplish? Quite possibly, as has often happened in the past, there will be panels of angry blacks pointing to incidents such as the Trayvon Martin and Rodney King and Emmitt Till incidents as evidence that America is awash in racism, always has been, and always will be (so what's the point of the dialogue?). Never mind the fact that it's highly unlikely that the monstrous Till tragedy could take place in today's America, or that Rodney King's black companions weren't beaten or even touched by those vicious, racist cops, or that the Martin tragedy should never have occurred, for the non-racial reasons that I've laid out in this post. Never mind the progress that certainly has been made in this area, even within my lifetime; America is, according to many, so mired in overt and covert racism that it will never change. Again I ask: If racism is so permanent a fixture of American life, what is the point of having all these dialogues on race?
When it comes to American race relations, I have good news and bad news: The good news is that race relations in America will never be worse than they are right night now; the bad news is that race relations in America will never be better than they are right now. The reason for both assertions is the same, and simple: Races don't relate; individuals do, and those individuals may or may not be of the same racial background. But as long as we force every incident involving conflict between individuals of different racial backgrounds into a box into which we peer through the lens of race, little or nothing will change.