Sunday, December 7, 2014

This is the Best Moment for American Race Relations in Decades

Racial controversy has been in the news a lot in the last couple weeks. This has produced a heightened sense of racial tension, and protestors around the country have been out on the streets daily. My sense is that most White Americans view all of this as unfortunate. There is a feeling that “race relations” have deteriorated. 

I want to dispel that idea. If you stand for justice, this has been, by far, the best moment for American “race relations” in decades. It is hard to overstate how pervasive the assumption is that outward calm should be the goal of our efforts. The assumption is carried in the language we use. “Race relations” is a term that reduces everything to the question of how we appear to be getting along. It completely elides whether there is a presence or absence of justice. And folks, what American history unequivocally shows is that you don’t get racial justice without going through times when White Americans are despairing over the sad state of “race relations.” It’s time to recognize how empty that term is. Let’s stop using it.

During the civil rights movement, an astonishingly consistent pattern emerged. As protests began in a city or region, Whites in that area expressed confusion and irritation. Over and over again, they declared that “race relations” were good in their town before the protests began. They were genuinely, sincerely baffled that African Americans were protesting when there was nothing to protest over. They repeatedly lamented that the civil rights activists had caused deterioration in “race relations” and sought to get the protests over with as quickly as possible so that peace could return.

Though Whites don’t see it this way, the message they convey when they focus on “relations” instead of “justice” is that racial injustice doesn’t matter as long as others are bearing the brunt of it, and doing so in silence. If our first response to recent events is to hope that things calm down soon, we’re acting as defenders of injustice even though we don’t mean to be doing so. If protests stop, no legislation is likely to be passed. If protests stop, White Christians can stop learning about these issues. If protests stop, we can go back to saying, “peace, peace!” when there is no peace. 

Want a concrete example of the “Let’s all calm down and stop talking about race” discourse? There is no better specimen than the repeated quoting of Martin Luther King that I’ve heard from many Whites in recent weeks. Here’s the funny thing about it: you already know which line they quoted. I don’t even have to tell you. And this line is quoted as a trump card. It’s a strange thing. I’ve never gotten the sense from the people quoting it that they have any qualms about not knowing any of Dr. King’s thousands of other speeches and sermons. The thing that is so discouraging about it is that they don't seem to realize there is more to know. They quote the line with utter abandon. It would be a different sort of problem if people were just cynical and saying, “As a strategic matter to try to bolster my argument and moral authority, I’m going to quote King.” But I don’t think that’s what they’re doing. I think they sincerely quote him and are unaware that he disagreed with their point of view. 

What should our conclusion be? These protests do not increase racial divisions. They expose them. Yet many White Americans are more offended by the act of exposure than by the injustice. We lack self-awareness and a sense of our place in history. Think about this: you can get all but the most committed racists to reluctantly admit that every single prior generation of White people was wrong on racial justice. Every generation. Yet people will continue to take the White perspective in this generation, with an outlandish confidence that, hey, I guess, the 20th time’s the charm. It’s theoretically possible they’re correct. But it takes a special brand of arrogance to think it is likely.

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