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July 31, 2009
Bitter Suds Can't Wash Away Racial Pain
Yesterday evening, the President and Vice President of the United States sat at a round patio table with a black Harvard University professor and the white police officer from Cambridge, Massachusetts who arrested him two weeks ago for disorderly conduct in his own home. Large mugs of beer, the beverage of choice, sat on the table or were being lifted to moisten dry throats, the kind that come from nervousness. My guess is this was the most uncomfortable any of these men have ever felt while drinking a beer. In the end, very little was accomplished except for the two antagonists agreeing to continue the dialogue. No apologies were issued, nor were they expected.
If this sounds like an improbable Hollywood drama sketch, it isn't nearly as far-fetched as the notion that this "beer summit" as it's been called will be a "teachable moment," as President Obama has opined, in the nation's long struggle with race. It may smooth over the problems these two men have with each other, but it will do nothing to change the different vantage points from which they and others of their respective races view the world. It is these differing worldviews that have created the gulf between blacks and whites in America, a gulf unique to the dynamic between these two races.
As a conservative who happens to be black, I have spent the better part of my adult life as a spectator to the great American debate on race. I say this because my experiences with racism and discrimination have been mercifully few and far exceeded by my positive encounters with Americans of all races.
The combination of my affirmative experiences and my deeply held Christian faith, which affirms my worth in God's eyes, has led me to interact with society as an individual human being rather than as part of a group. I think this puts my white friends and acquaintances very much at ease; they lower their defenses and we converse and associate with one another with no hint of the racial tension that lurks just under the surface of every encounter between blacks and whites.
On the other hand, American blacks, more so than any other demographic group including African immigrants, are the product of a tortured history in this country dating back to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 when the first Africans were brought to the English colony as indentured servants. Hundreds of years of slavery, institutionalized discrimination, and economic and social disparities between blacks and whites resulted in a collective worldview among American blacks borne out of necessity as much as racial identity. This collectivist approach helped to shelter black families, churches and communities during the dark days of post-Reconstruction America leading up to the 1960s civil rights movement.
Collectivism also became a source of political and economic power for the black community as they discovered their ability to effect policy and preferential treatment by presenting their grievances as a group. Finally, and most critical to race relations today, collectivism became a way to keep blacks and whites in line. Whites critical of the black collectivist worldview are labeled racists; blacks who question it are called traitors, sellouts and "Uncle Toms." Black collectivism exploits white guilt and stifles black individualism.
The fallout from the incident involving Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley is illustrative of this point. Cries of racial profiling reached a fever pitch when President Obama declared the police acted "stupidly" in the arrest of Gates, his friend. Blacks hailed his statement as truth spoken from the bully pulpit of the Oval Office.
The backlash against Obama's statement and similar comments by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a black man and friend of Obama's, was swift and forceful. Police unions around the country demanded an apology from the President. Crowley's colleagues, including two black police officers, rallied to his defense. Remarkably, two of the black officers, a man and a woman, were passionate and unflinching in their support of their friend and co-worker. The woman, when asked about the President's statement, called it "unfortunate" and went even further, stating "I supported him, I voted for him; I will not again." My assumption would be that most whites cheered these black cops for standing by their fellow police officer irrespective of race.
The black community, however, did not take kindly to this departure from the collective mindset. The black male officer, Sgt. Leon Lashley, was compelled to write a letter for Sgt. Crowley to deliver to President Obama about how he was being maligned and called an "Uncle Tom" for telling the truth. He shared the letter with CNN:
Sgt. Lashley's experiences underscore the challenge of making this episode into a "teachable moment." As columnist E.J. Dionne states:
Neither side is willing to concede they can learn from the other. Whites believe that race should be irrelevant and the character and behavior of the individual is what should matter. Blacks consider themselves a collective whole and judge whites collectively as well. Individualism is an approach without power to coerce social change and which absolves whites of the collective sin of racism. Therefore, it is rejected.
Blacks like me who endorse the individualist worldview are denigrated and shamed to get back in line. It is our departure from orthodoxy, however, that allows us to break the shackles of racial tension and see it for what it is - a clash of worldviews. Understanding collectivism versus individualism is the first step toward a more constructive dialogue on race and, while I don't drink beer myself, I think we can all raise our glasses to that.
Ron Miller, of Huntingtown, Maryland is a conservative writer and activist, former and future candidate for the Maryland Senate, and communications director for the Calvert County Republican Party. His website is TeamRonMiller.com