Thursday, September 3, 2015

America's Longest Conversation

“To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean, making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.” 
― Frantz Fanon

Anyone who has spent time on crutches knows how good it feels to walk unaided. If, however, you were bedridden or in a wheel chair those crutches would be a major achievement. That's how civil rights function in America. The life of racial and ethnic minorities is leaps and bounds better than their ancestor's, but that can't be the only metric we use to judge progress. It's easy for someone in 2015 to question the motives of those who highlight racial disparities in our economic, educational, and legal systems, but how many of those critical of the shared struggle for equality can honestly say race and ethnicity don't factor into the lives of minorities? 

I've written more about race in the last two years than I have at any point in my life. I've started a few dozen articles on religion, philosophy, politics, and economics only to have my writing taken hostage by the intractability of being a black man in the age of yellow journalism: conservative talk radio and Fox news. I'm tired of being a prisoner in this fight, yet if I don't attempt to refute the images of black life being sold to those who ingest the fear and hatred spread over our public airways I can't sleep. I spend hours writing blog posts and opinion pieces that hardly get read in order to keep myself from drowning a sea of anger and impotence. Fifty years ago Dick Gregory said the Negro has never been able to control his image; fifty years later his aphorism still rings true. I don't care what someone thinks of me, but I do care that there are people who actively project their worst fears onto my nieces and nephews. 

It's almost impossible to advocate for equality and not make enemies. Race is touchy: so touchy that some of my closest relationships have become strained. If, people who've known me for thirty years are uncomfortable hearing about racial inequalities, is it worth it to engage segments of our society who have become racially exhausted or downright jingoistic as a response to the resurrection of black activism? For too many of the best and brightest in the black community the answer to that question is no. Everyone is entitled to live their lives the best way they see fit, so I won't indict those who choose to stand on the sidelines, but I hope their silence eats at them a little each day. Denying racism allows racism to persist.

The inadequacies at the center of today's movements aren't a result of a collective delusion. Chronicling discrepancies has nothing to do with trying to make white people feel guilty. I don't know, specifically, what others want, but my motivation is to make it easier for someone to acknowledge racism, and ultimately find the courage to use their agency to help tear it down. Our focus should be on creating an atmosphere where even subtle racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes and policies are so toxic and stigmatized that no one wants to be associated with them. We have the power to put pressure on the individuals who constitute the institutions that allow the inadequacies to continue. 

This is America's longest conversation, because it requires all of us to admit painful truths. We have three or four national conversations about race a year. The tragedy is that most of the rational voices are stifled or shut out of the conversation. Instead of productive dialogue we get cable television scream fests full of ad hominem attacks. We're stuck in a perpetual cycle in which racial incidents lead to racial outrage- which leads to public demonstration and condemnation- followed by further segmentation.