Talking About Race

Calvin Griffith moved the Washington Senators to Minneapolis in 1961 and they became the Twins. In 1978 he gave a lunch talk to a Lions Club in Waseca in Southern Minnesota. He didn’t know there was a reporter in the audience, Nick Coleman, there with a relative.

Griffith told the white group that he moved his team because there were fewer blacks here. Washington was becoming increasingly African American, and Griffith said blacks don’t attend baseball games much. “We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.” Coleman reported Griffith’s comments in the Minneapolis Tribune, and there was an uproar. Griffith was accused of being a racist. He said he was talking about economics and the realities of business.

A lot of us white folks have trouble talking about race. I do. But I’m fascinated by it. We have a good discussion going in the comments on this blog about the relationship of race to poverty (“Spin Win for Tim”) and about whether firing Don Imus was an overreaction (“Imus Blew It Twice”). One of the people who comments on this blog has written that he feels censored because he’s being challenged on how he relates race to socio-economic conditions while he challenges some of the rest of us on our views.

I’ve written on this blog defending Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels’s incendiary comments about burning down North High School – I said we need lots of rowdy discussion of public issues, including provocative and outrageous stuff. I also wrote that what Imus said on air was racist crap. Samuels is black, Imus is white, I’m white. Am I a white liberal whose guilt about blacks leads me to a double standard – it’s OK for a black to shoot off his mouth but not a white?

I am a white liberal. I am confused and heartbroken about racial issues. I was born in Washington D.C., and lived there until I was five – my parents moved to Washington during World War II and lived there until 1955. The Washington that we lived in and that produced Griffith the dinosaur was a segregated Southern city. My parents, good people from North Dakota, absorbed some of the racism ambient in the environment. I occasionally heard my college-educated mother use racist terms that surprised me when I was older. I sometimes have thoughts I’d not want to say out loud when I see black people – was that black kid on the Atlanta MARTA train just this morning, with his hood, sagging pants and rolling gait, a banger? I have absorbed some of the prejudice and stereotyping that is frighteningly normal in privileged white life.

Thursday, after finishing work with a client and dear friend in Atlanta, she and I went to two Martin Luther King sites – his grave and interpretive center across from Ebenezer Baptist Church, and a collection of his papers, notes, books and speeches. What comes flowing out of these places and papers is amazing courage in the face of terror, violence and an all-encompassing oppressive force that tried to make blacks non-human. People were shot down at midday on courthouse steps in the South for trying to register to vote. In my lifetime. Yet King said in his Nobel acceptance speech, “I have an abiding faith in America.” What strength of character and faith – beyond my comprehension. I’ve been moved to tears, as on Thursday, so many times since Katrina about issues of race that I think I’m becoming a child again.

So how do we handle, on this blog, discussions about race, some of which will certainly be offensive, or at least seem stupid, to others?

First, we’re glad somebody’s reading this stuff, and talking back to us and one another. Which leads to – second, talk away. Talk some more. The answer to bad speech is more speech, one free-speech adage goes. If I’m offensive or ignorant or just plain a jerk, don’t shut me up, but listen and talk with me. Another liberal friend tells about hearing her son say things she thinks are repugnant and ignorant about people struggling to rebuild in New Orleans. She says to him, “How can you think that?” and then explains her view so he’ll get it and change his thinking. But what if she just listened to him instead, drew him out, found out why he thinks what he thinks? At least listen first, listen fully. Then give your views. Maybe you’ll change someone’s mind, although that’s rare. At least you’ll have given yourself a chance to learn something before shooting off your own mouth (which is my own instant reaction).

Listening a little more is probably what we should do on this blog when we so strongly disagree with someone. And then disagree back, rowdily.

I applauded Don Samuels’ right to be inflammatory. But he didn’t say something like, “Let’s burn down Edina High School and force those honky silver-spoon rich-bastard pigs to come to city schools and see what the real world is like.” (I can’t even come up with slurs of whites that come anywhere close to slamming into one’s soul with the force of the slurs we’ve used against blacks, or Native Americans, because we whites don’t carry the burden of being a minority that’s been consistently shoved to their knees.) Imus called the Rutgers women athletes “nappy headed ho’s” and allowed his sidekick to use the word “jigaboos.” If it’s liberal guilt that makes me say that’s appalling, or a faint ability to feel just a fraction of what it must be like to be black and female and hear those words, I don’t know. If Samuels had used some equally powerful slurs, I’d criticize him for going too far trying to make a fair point. I wouldn’t say he should shut up. But I could choose not to listen to him anymore.

So here we are, no doubt mostly white writers and readers, talking about talking about race. We’re exploring a big cave with little flashlights, seeing bits of things here and there. So let’s keep talking while we explore, and let’s ask our black friends what they think and feel.

In all forms of communication, it takes a high level of understanding to fully know how your message is being received. It’s hard effort worth making.

– Bruce Benidt

13 thoughts on “Talking About Race

  1. Susan says:

    I think the question is about humanity, not race. If you are a kind-hearted, good, person, qualifiers like race, socio-economic status and gender don’t enter into your comments — public or private.

    My mother-in-law used the n-word in front of my kids a few months ago. She grew up in the middle of the race riots IN Detroit in the 60s. I understand her perspective to an extent. But, I jumped on her so fast, that it took her a couple of moments to let go of the shocked look on her face. I cannot change her mind. It’s not my goal. My goal is to raise good, kind-hearted children.

    It’s up to us to be human. To not let racist, sexist comments prevail.

    It’s about humanity. It’s all about us making a difference. Now.

  2. One of the hardest things to do is stand up for what’s right when others are saying stuff you think is racist, sexist, inhumane, whatever. Easier to go along and not seem like a prude or part of the PC police. Bravo, Susan, for speaking up for your kids and putting that shocked look on your mother-in-law’s face.

    Over the weekend, on Howard Kurtz’s Reliable Sources show on CNN, one black journalist made it sound like he thought it was OK to say racist stuff on a small radio show but not on a large show that’s also televised. He called it context, but it sounded like situational ethics to me. So, situationally, what if your mother-in-law used the N-word in front of you but not your kids. Worth the fight?

  3. CK says:

    How can a fundamentally “racist nation” produce the likes of Oprah, one of the world’s most popular and wealthy women; Condoleeza Rice (insert liberal elitist sneer here), occupant of the world’s most influential positions; Colin Powell; Rep. John Conyers; Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express; Tiger Woods …?

    If people spend the preponderance of their time sitting around waiting to be offended, it will happen. Others (like those above) choose to move on by persevering and winning hearts and minds.

    Still others we know make a career of racial ambulance chasing and never do a thing to help the cause.

  4. jloveland says:

    Supporters of racial equality should be outraged with those who cry wolf on race, because the over-reactions have devalued legitimate problems that do exist.

    Insensitive racial language is not unimportant. But education, health care and child care policies that limit equal opportunity for poor people of all races should be getting more attention than racial language issues currently are getting in the news media.

    The economic divide between the haves and have-nots is growing wider, and that hurts us all because free societies and free markets work best when there is equal opportunity for all. An impoverished black, white or purple kid with who arrives at a failing school unprepared to learn doesn’t have the same opportunity the rest of us have.

    Those issues have more impact on equal opportunity than the celebrity slur du jour, but they aren’t as fun at the water cooler…so the news media gives us what we want.

  5. Gentle suggestion – ask a few of the black players on the Twins to write a guest column for your blog – or at least post a comment. Ask some from today’s team – and find one or two from 1978. I’d love to hear what Rod Carew or Tony Oliva would have to say about this topic.

  6. Lurker says:

    At first read of Loveland’s reply (above) I felt a twinge of angst. Let’s not make this about economics, I thought to myself. But his point is so real. We can say/think/hope/misinterpret that minorities are their own worst enemies because of social status. Even as some are able to reach the height of heights (Winfrey and Woods) for example, the vast majority of minorities continue to be oppressed – forced into multiple hourly wage jobs to make ends meet and therefore perpetuate what society has made them out to be – whether they want it or not.

    So while economics comes into play, I continue to be dumbfounded by African American kids, as just one example, who choose to idolize a rapper who uses the word “ho” in his or her rhyme. In today’s world, that’s perfectly fine, but if a near-retirement white man celebrity breathes the word it’s a heinous act that requires loss of job and status. Our collective world has a long way to go. It’s not just majority thought and actions that need to continue to change. It’s all of us and it starts with respecting the HUMAN race.

  7. Susan says:

    Bruce: you got me. She’s used the n-word before in front of my husband and I and I may have nonverbally communicated disgust, but not verbally — that I saved for my husband’s ears on the ride home. Interesting, that when it came to defending my kids reality I was much braver than when defending my own.

  8. Bill Dewey says:

    I think that what irritates and angers many of us to day as ‘racism,” at least with regard to African-Americans, is more classism than anything else. Yesterday was Jackie Robinson Day around baseball. In his time people called him “a credit to his race,” and that was taken as a compliment. Today we would just call him a credit to his paremnts and the rest of his family, his teachers, whoever else had a hand in making him the man he was, in short a credit to humanity. Then, we (those of us who remember then) recognized that there was some kind of a barrier between blacks and whites. Some of us thought that it shouldn’t be there, and we have tried to tear it down, but it is hard because it is so hard to grasp, to understand. Does it mean anything to say that a ‘race” can produce a Colin Powell or a Jackie Robinson, and more than that a ‘race’ can produce an Albert Schweitzer or a Juhn Kennedy? The latter, after all, is the race that ‘produced’ Adolf Hitler, David Berkowitz, and Don Imus.

    Does it make the behavior we refer to as ‘banger’ or ‘ho’ any more or less obnoxious if the actor is white? Not to me, it doesn’t. I don’t like it at all. It may be true that some kinds of behavior that I don’t like is more commonly that of black people than white ones, but there are plenty of things that mostly white people do that I don’t like either.

  9. jloveland says:

    And then there is the hypocrisy of society tolerating the use of terms like “white trash.” Think about that term a minute. Substitute another race into that phrase, and you see how dehumanizing it is, yet no “gotchas” are launched when people use it. If we are against the broad principal of dehumanization, then we need to be against dehumanizing terms for all.

    Again, I think language gotchas get overblown and drown out the larger points about what it will take to get to equality of opportunity. But if we are going to focus on language, we should at least be principled and consistent about it.

  10. Eileen says:

    The problem with my racism is that most of the time I don’t even realize I’m being racist. As a white person raised in an all white community, racism is within me. A few years ago I would have proclaimed (and did, I’m sure) “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” I don’t judge people, I don’t use racist language …

    Then I was slapped upside the head. For 10 years I had heard about a guy people called the “Miracle Worker” for his work with people who are homeless. One day I had the opportunity to meet him. Even today, it’s hard to write this: I was surprised he was black. I had assumed the guy I had heard and read about for years was white. Why? Racism so deep I didn’t know it was there.

    A few years ago my worship community studied Paul Kivel’s book, “Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice.” I still keep the book on my nightstand. I need the reminder that dismantling racism takes ongoing effort. Even for someone without a racist bone in her body.

  11. Kelly Groehler says:

    To JL’s point, pick up the May 2007 issue of Vanity Fair for a satirical snub on the British expats living in NYC. Every imaginable British stereotype – yes, including oral hygiene – is used to denegrate them. Granted, it was a Brit writer smacking his own. But I can’t imagine such a piece would be written and published, had it been a satirical snub on the Puerto Rican or Kenyan expats in that city – even if the author had been one of their own.

    Side note: the silence these past two weeks of the ACLU is deafening.

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