[Author’s Note: After the following was posted, an informed reader sent me a correction regarding Charlene Reynolds, namely that I misidentified her as being black, when in fact she is white. I’ve reviewed the post, and decided that removing the erroneous description detracts very little from my intended point. But I have made the correction and done some minor edits to close up any gaps. At DU we do NOT consider identifying someone as black to be a defamatory statement, so for that I feel no need to apologize. But we try to be accurate, and I apologize for any confusion. TRC]
Here’s a summertime activity that’s cheap, fun, and doesn’t burn gasoline:
Let’s all have a conversation about race!
I know what you’re thinking. Remember we did that one year, and what a lousy time we had all had!
But I’m here to tell you, the whole country’s going to be having this conversation one way or the other, whether we like it or not. (Okay, we’re not going to like it). So why not get started now?
Because something big is changing in race relations in America. And it’s high time.
But it’s not going to be pretty. And it sure won't be fun.
But it will be for the best.
And that's on account of this new conversation we’re all going to have--the one not being controlled by the same people who’ve been controlling it these last forty years. I don’t think when it comes it’s going to be controlled by anybody. It isn't Obama's idea. That was an accident. It's not Rev. Wright's idea. He's a classic controller of the ancien regime.
That’s all over. Done with. Finito. That's a page that's been been turned. Turned by accident. But turned nonetheless. And forever.
By way of illustration I ask you to consider Detroit Free Press columnist Stephen Henderson. He’s black, a self-admitted Obama euphoriac who sees Obama’s nomination as a sign of progress and falling “racial barriers.”
In his Sunday column Henderson was hard at work for his candidate, fretting that the a lot of the right kind of voters are failing to dig Obama the way he does. (“Racial attitudes that Obama must address”). Henderson specifically was worried about a woman named Charlene Reynolds, and “lots of people just like her.”
It seems Ms. Reynolds had written a letter to the Free Press in response to another black columnist, declaring, “I would not vote for Obama because he is inexperienced, has not earned the right to my vote, and he is black.”
Plain enough. Detroit’s full of racists, right? Or so we’ve been told for forty years. More than likely Ms. Reynolds is just an outspoken Republican, that other party that's made up 99 and 44/100% of Klansmen, and people who plan vacations around dragging black guys behind pickup trucks.
The strange thing is, Ms. Reynolds is a Democrat. And what's more, she’s “a retired civil servant and union member living in western Wayne County. She voted for Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, and twice for Gov. Jennifer Granholm. She's against the Iraq war, fed up with economic stagnation, thinks there should be broader access to health care.” Put another way, she’s supposed to be what Henderson calls a “gimme” for Obama.
Instead, he uses his column to call Charlene Reynolds an ignorant, bigoted, racist. He even went and met her in person after reading her letter, so he could accuse her of racism with even more authority. Sure enough, after finding her commendably honest in person, he wrote, “I find her bigotry is more complicated and nuanced -- but no less ignorant -- than the overt, cross-burning racism that gets portrayed as prototypical. Reynolds has reasons for her racism, she told me.”
(Now I seriously doubt that Ms. Reynolds described her own reasons to Henderson as “racism.” But Henderson had to fall back on paraphrasing Ms. Reynolds's actual thoughts. The Free Press refused to run Ms. Reynolds’s letter verbatim, out of fear, Henderson says, that “running it without any context would have sent the wrong message about this newspaper, and the discussion we're trying to cultivate in. [sic].”)
Henderson writes that Ms. Reynolds specifically refused any suggestion that she’s been “duped into her racial estrangement, she said. She's not some uneducated redneck who thinks blacks are dirty or stupid or inherently unequal. She comes by her views from experience.”
Ms. Reynolds spent her working career as a state employee, working first for several years as a case worker for the welfare department, and then as a probation officer. In any other context, she would be given the latitude of having come by her attitudes honestly.
Yet I think the problem arises when, as a prominent black columnist and, ergo, a voice for the lesser-voiced Detroit black community, Henderson sees himself as a gatekeeper for discussions on race. The duties of race gatekeeper are simple. If you’re white, and want to talk about race, the gate stays closed. In fact, how dare you? You don't talk--you just listen! (Characters like Fr. Pfleger are the rare exceptions--but only because they are the white equivalent of Stepin Fetchit, mocking their own whiteness in craven exchange for approval--but never the respect--of blacks. The Trinity Choir and Peanut Gallery in the Pfleger video aren’t laughing with him --they’re laughing at him.) But then if you’re black, and are critical at all of the "black experience," or any of the usual black leaders, or any of the tried-and-failed solutions of forty years of black liberal politics—then the gate also stays closed. This isn't exactly the narrow gate spoken of Elsewhere that few enter--it's much more restrictive.
This is gatekeeping, old school. Which is why Henderson just knew he had to shut the gate on Ms. Reynolds for daring to hold opinions like this one: “She believes middle-class blacks can be ‘normal’ in mixed company, but resort to conspiracy-laden anti-white rants when they're among other blacks; even educated blacks, she says, just don't trust whites.”
Henderson’s reaction is straight by the book: “Reynolds' generalizations aren't worth dignifying with a response.” And doggone it, he doesn’t respond. Instead he just burns up a lot of column inches calling his fellow black an ignorant, racist, bigot.
And that, friends, is why the racial conversation in America has gone No Place in an ever-tightening circle for forty years. Say something the gatekeepers don’t like, and the conversation is over.
Now I happen to think Ms. Reynolds’s point is worth dignifying with a response. Otherwise, the conversation Obama wants us all to have isn't going to last long, is it? Not every response has to be in agreement. Henderson could respond without agreeing. He could engage, persuade, he could offer contradictory facts. Isn’t that what columnists spend their time doing?
But Henderson skips all that, simply throwing up his hands and asking, “How on Earth do you refute what for Reynolds is a lifetime of encounters that have led her -- wrongly -- to her broad but firm conclusions?”
Well, how do you refute anything? By refuting it. (If you can.) Certainly you don't refute anything by telling someone whose conclusions are based on a lifetime’s observations that she arrived at her conclusions “wrongly.” How, if a lifetime of encounters led her to those conclusions, could she have been led there “wrongly”? Isn't that the meaning of the word, "experience"?
As a matter of fact, when Ms. Reynolds makes her observation that “middle-class blacks can be ‘normal’ in mixed company, but resort to conspiracy-laden anti-white rants when they're among other blacks; even educated blacks, she says, just don't trust whites,” she’s not even expressing anything that some blacks haven't said before, and recently--blacks who weren't called ignorant racists for it.
For instance, here’s Barack Obama during his Philadelphia race speech in March discussing the same point:
Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways.
For the men and women of Rev. Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years.
That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table . . . . And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Rev. Wright's sermons . . . .
“Those blacks who did make it” is a reference to the black middle class. And the surprising anger in Rev. Wright’s sermons was disturbing because it took the form of a bitter, conspiratorial mistrust—even hatred—of white people. And then how many times did liberal defenders of Trinity and Wright point out that the congregation includes some of the most prominent and successful people in Chicago’s black community? Obama was making the identical point as Ms. Reynolds, when she said, “even educated blacks . . . just don't trust whites.”
Yet Henderson isn’t calling Obama a bigot for acknowledging how blacks harbor secret bitterness that they try to shield from whites, or that they mistrust whites, or how the “resort to conspiracy-laden anti-white rants”-- illustrated so vividly in Rev. Wright’s sermons--is a reflects that very anger and bitterness. Even liberal white columnist, (and Wright admirer), New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, says he thinks what’s happening now “is that the Obama campaign has led many white Americans to listen in for the first time to some of the black conversation — and they are thunderstruck.” (“Obama and Race”).
(Some of us have known about the anger for a lot longer than that. But we haven’t been free to discuss it, don’t you see.)
So why is it Henderson is so hard on Ms. Reynolds and “lots of people just like her”? Aren’t they all just pointing out a social/racial rift that’s only going to be more widely obvious from here on out --the awful stalemate we're all living with between black anger on the one side and the rapidly depleting resource of white guilt on the other?
I think it's that Henderson's still locked in to the old racial regime, the rules of engagement of forty years, the ones that reject all criticism as bigotry per se, even if it comes from within the black community. Those rules don't converse, don't discuss--they only shut people up. Under those old rules all Henderson the gatekeeper can do is try to declare that Ms. Reynolds’s “generalizations aren't worth dignifying with a response.” The same rules that poisonously insist that conservatives who vote against Obama for his liberal politics are motivated only by his race.
But the gatekeepers aren’t stopping everybody as easily as they once could. More and more people are finding other ways in. Gates are being ignored, walls scaled. The scene will soon resemble that toked-up mob when they started ripping down the cyclone fences around Woodstock. (“This is a mind f***er of all times, man.”)
There are differences already. Slightly more than a year ago Al Sharpton was still hearing confessions from the likes of Don Imus. Now, after the race enforcers tried to rub out Geraldine Ferraro by calling her a racist, instead of languishing in exile, she's getting more face time now than she’s had since 1984. She’s even fighting back, sounding, if I may so, every bit like a “typical white person” or maybe even Obama’s grandma:
" 'Any time anybody does anything that in any way pulls this campaign down and says let's address reality and the problems we're facing in this world, you're accused of being racist, so you have to shut up,' Ferraro said. 'Racism works in two different directions. I really think they're attacking me because I'm white. How's that?'...”
(And speaking of old-school black gatekeepers, Bob Herbert responded to Ferraro’s remarks this way: “Geraldine Ferraro’s rants are sad and not worth responding to.” Ha!)
WCHB even canceled Sharpton’s show last week. (Yes, Detroit is now an official No Justice, No Peace Zone). The listeners, apparently, demand more "inspirational" programming.
It's a new day. The race discussion's going to be open to anyone now, or soon will be. One side will no longer have to cringe silently through hectoring, uninformed lectures on the “legacy of slavery” and the “lessons of Katrina,” while social pathologies rage through entire communities immunized by race politics. The other side, if all goes well, will have the freedom to demand better leaders, better solutions, more choices, a better legacy.
Not that it's going to be pretty. It won't be. And it won’t be nice. But everyone, Black, White, American Samoan, or Other, will benefit.
This is long, long overdue.