by Deborah Mathis, BlackAmericaWeb.com
For the longest, well-meaning people have called for a “conversation on race” in the belief that an honest and determined talk and listening streak will cure, or at least drastically ease, interracial tensions and misgivings, our great national nervous tic.
The last time the country took this proposition head on was in 1997, when then-President Clinton launched “One America in the 21st Century: The President’s Initiative on Race.” The effort was replete with an advisory board of distinguished and thoughtful Americans — the venerable late historian John Hope Franklin among them.
The initiative ended 15 months later when the advisory board issued its final report, “Forging A New Future.” While hopeful and intelligent, the report contained no innovations, only a litany of well known tenets of the equality quest, like reducing drug sentencing disparities, strengthening hate crimes laws and supporting community development projects.
The advisory board also published a “dialogue guide,” aimed at steering the conversations between friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances and, presumably, strangers of another ethnicity.
The president’s introductory letter in the guide read, in part, “While we confront our differences in honest dialogue, we must also talk about the common dreams and the values we share. We must fight discrimination in our communities and in our hearts. And we must close the opportunity gaps that deprive too many Americans of the chance to realize their full potential.” The rest of the guide prompted the wished for dialogues with recommended topics, questions and scenarios.
In the end, as well intended as the effort may have been, it made a contribution to the social policy debate but didn’t do much to inspire or enlighten the man who thinks “them folks” are inherently inferior or the woman who swears that “them folks” are naturally evil to the core.
Hence, more than a decade later, the economic disparities between whites and non-whites still gape, black farmers can’t collect for discrimination that kept them from being all they could be – discrimination the U.S. Agriculture Department admitted to; and racial epithets and repulsive innuendo is slung, daily, at the current president, who is, for once, black.
The fact is, we didn’t have a conversation; we got a talking to. You have to wonder if we will ever have that conversation, that dialogue, that rap session – call it what you will.
Certainly not now, not when so many are so stressed out, afraid, confused or angry. The country already feels like a giant asylum. Not much thoughtfulness is likely to come from such heads right now.
But later – one day, some day – just maybe, we will be ready to have that talk, with the understanding that it will be painful and ugly to start, necessarily so. Kind of like the bad tooth that keeps getting the clove oil and aspirin treatment, the day does come that it must face the drill.
It may not come in my lifetime. But then, I never thought I’d live to see a black president.
Miracles do happen. And apparently, that’s just what it will take to make us come clean about the conversation that, for now, is confined to inner voices.