I’ve had this theory about weathering the weather. If we talk a lot about how hot or cold it is, things seem worse.
More than a few folks have the same theory about race relations. The more we talk about it, the worse it is.
But here’s what I know about the weather despite my theory. The mercury is unaffected by complaint or conversation. It’s still hot or cold.
President Obama tried to explain to America why African-American reactions to the “not guilty” verdict in the Trayvon Martin case appear so full of raw emotion. He explained all about context – how the history most know, and the shared experiences not all do know, inform how many African-Americans interpret the verdict. The president spoke in personal terms, how he has shared some of those experiences. These amount to suspicion that you are “up to no good” – just because you are who you are.
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Most Americans, I’m guessing, were proud that the president would attempt to bridge this gap in understanding. Irony, of course, abounds. We can have a black president, and young black men are still followed around in department stores – or worse things happen.
But, of course, there are those who heard the president’s remarks and instantly regarded him as divider-in-chief. These folks apply my theory of weather to race relations but believe that talking about race relations actually raises the temperature. In fact, if you talk about it, you’re, gasp, a race-baiter.
The president invited scrutiny of the statistics, the “facts” that some use to buttress their perceptions of blacks. In this, he was only asking that we employ some good old American skepticism.
Why are these statistics so out of kilter for some groups? Would Martin, had he lived, been able to legally stand his ground? Why, since rates of drug use are roughly equal between blacks and whites, are blacks far more likely to be charged and go to prison for drug crimes, one of the main reasons our prisons are so full?
This charge of race-baiting goes something like this: “If you write or speak about racism, you are picking sides and hate whites. You are, therefore, racist.”
But this is really saying a couple of other things. Foremost: “Shut up; you’re making me uncomfortable.” It’s a defense mechanism that often compels its user to reduce complaints about racial unfairness to an alleged yen for victimhood and prompts overdrawn assumptions about lack of personal responsibility.
But what those intolerant of calling out intolerance are also saying: “You know, I just find it difficult, nigh on to impossible, to imagine what it’s like to walk in other people’s shoes.” The president was making a plea for understanding. But he was also making a plea for something absent in a whole lot of public policy discussions – empathy.
The president is not saying that whites are racist. He was trying to tap that well-known American trait of fairness. Not everyone has shared those experiences, and history is more abstract for some than others.
The president is acknowledging that the capacity to feel empathy is still too absent. And unlike the weather, racial issues might actually be helped by talking about them.
So, hey, how ’bout that racial climate? Let’s talk about why it’s hotter for some and why others are more often left out in the cold.