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