Friday, December 30, 2011

The Race We Are Still Running

Today, two tweeps I regularly derive enjoyment from - Bomani Jones and John Stansberry - showed how far we have to go in America on the matter of... no, not "race relations" (that's too limited a point of focus), but on the matter of understanding the larger reality of race as it affects attitudes, perceptions, and the whole of society. The point of this brief commentary is not to weigh in on what both men think about Cameron Newton. Read their linked articles above. It's similarly pointless to render a verdict on their assessments of the extent to which the "black quarterback" label is limiting social progress - you need to wrestle with what Mr. Jones said in his piece.

What I'm here to talk about is the long-distance race we are still running in America on issues pertaining to race. As Bomani Jones would tell you, for all the progress we've made on race in 50 years, racism is still quite prevalent in this country, anything but a fringe reality or a merely marginal presence on the national landscape. While gains have been made here and there in the course of time, they haven't brought us to a point where Americans enjoy both harmony and true understanding in relationship to "The Other," to people with identities different from our own. The Obama presidency and the issue of immigration have shown how uncomfortable Americans remain when dealing with a subject that cuts very deep and owns a central place in our young nation's history. The reality of our nation's prison system offers powerful testimony to the fact that race remains a source and manifestation of profound injustice, proving that we are hardly a "post-racial" society. No matter what you might think or believe about race, it shouldn't be hard to accept the claim that we - as Americans - have not "solved" questions of racial and ethnic identity. This stuff gets under our skin (and our skin color, as it were). One must keep that point firmly in mind before going forward here...

John Stansberry (@LonelyTailgater on Twitter) made two basically correct points in his piece above: 1) Things are better for black quarterbacks today than they were in 1978; 2) It is very tricky for racial minorities to talk about their own groups or members of their own groups in ways that are less than flattering. Those are two correct-enough assessments, and there's nothing to lament in Stansberry's ability to make those identifications.

The question becomes, what should be taken from those identifications?

One conclusion I certainly would NOT reach is that Jones - @bomani_jones on Twitter - is being a race-baiter or someone who is casually overstating the extent to which Cam Newton has been besieged by racist attitudes.

One can be a No. 1 NFL Draft pick and still encounter racist sentiments. Social progress on race can advance over the course of 33 years (a third of a century) and still fall far short of where it needs to be... even to the extent that racial matters stir the blood so easily in public forums. Stansberry was speaking on a very immediate level in his analysis, but he then chose to see Jones's piece in a similarly confined context. Jones was speaking on a much broader social level, targeting the persistence of prevalent racist attitudes in the football world and trying to point out - correctly - that we haven't figured out. He wasn't zeroing in on Newton's draft status but was instead trying to do what a good citizen does: Point the way to the larger truth instead of allowing society to settle for the simpler answer in a more limited context.

People might find flaws in the way Jones executed his argument or supported it (I personally think it was structurally sound), but the point I seek to stress is that Jones's intent was and is to bring society to a healthier understanding and awareness of what's really going on. As is the case in politics, one should be able to grow in respect for someone you disagree with if that person is acting on convictions with sincerity and a desire for a larger social good. Disagreement should not be seen as due cause for a parting of ways; misunderstandings should not be viewed as grounds for attacking other people or assigning negative motives to them. Disagreements, in short, are best handled when they're left as merely disagreements, differences meant to be talked about and fleshed out in the fullness of time. When disagreements are seen as unacceptable positions, opposing sides - on one issue, on a whole host of issues, or in various sectors of life (sports, church, government, medicine, etc.) - are pulled far apart, thereby maintaining a fractured environment in which social divisions only deepen and various communities have little incentive to see life through the prism of "The Other."

It is this social division - the perpetuation of an us-against-them mentality - which limits the ability of men and women to make even greater strides in our dealings. Bomani Jones's attempt to speak to a larger truth and John Stansberry's misreading of Jones's motives show us that it is so incredibly difficult to get any two Americans to arrive at a shared place of understanding on race. When I use the phrase "shared place of understanding," I'm not saying that we should all see issues the same way. I'm saying that we should allow a critique of racial issues or attitudes to be seen as an honest attempt to bring about social improvement and call people to be better... not as "race-baiting" or the self-interested pushing of  buttons to elicit strong responses and gain heavy internet traffic (and hence, more money or publicity).

No matter what you think about Cam Newton, I think it's fair to say that the young man is not an easy figure to analyze without generating a strong response. Newton was immersed in a controversy at Auburn which gained sustained national attention (the controversy didn't involve wrongdoing by Newton himself; the point is that it touched a national nerve). Newton's "When the devil be messin', God be blessin'" comment also captured the attention of many Americans. He won the Heisman Trophy and has maintained a place in the spotlight, most recently for his stellar play on the field. If anyone with the national profile of Bomani Jones were to tackle Cam Newton, plenty of people would react. It's unfortunate that anyone would view Jones's article as an attempt to stir the pot and create trouble. Viewing the piece as an attempt to challenge the national conscience - especially within the innards of the football community - offers a far healthier and more productive way to view Jones's essay. Being able to engage him in thoughtful dialogue would then offer anyone - including Stansberry - a chance to understand Jones's views in greater detail. The assignation of motives without (and removed from) a process of questioning makes the storm of criticism against Jones counterproductive. Being open to the merits of what Jones has to say is the attitude which can enable healthy conversations about race to unfold in this country.

There's one other way in which to cultivate a climate that's conducive to the continuation of healthy conversations about race: Not calling a disagreer or opponent "racist" unless the reality is blindingly apparent beyond all reasonable doubt.

I do think that Jones's fiercest critics - those who assign the race-baiter label to him - are demonstrating a very impoverished view of race and racial tensions; accordingly, Jones's detractors reveal how hard it is to establish a nourishing, illuminating conversation about race free from suspicions about ulterior motives. However, having a poor understanding of racism doesn't make a person a racist. In fact, the very point of writing with such studied intelligence and precision on race - as Jones does - is to call the larger society to a greater awareness of racial tensions. Racism - like other sins - can be fully considered "sinful" to the extent that the person manifesting it understands larger truths and can make important distinctions as a citizen. Without broad and expansive knowledge, a person can't quite "own" his or her sins because that person can't be seen as a purposeful, intentional actor, someone guided by his/her own initiative. The fully knowing person - the person who SHOULD know between right and wrong - is the person guilty of racism. If one were to have this Cam Newton conversation face-to-face for 60 minutes and not break new ground, perhaps one could then be in a position to view an opponent through a dimmer lens. A few tweets and linked articles, however, do not provide enough basis for being able to say that another person is genuinely racist (and all that the R-word implies).

Many Americans are fatigued by conversations about race. They are tired of running. Yes, we still need to have conversations; yes, our society still isn't close to where it needs to be; yes, we can't think we've arrived at a post-racial paradise; however, in order to reach those who disagree with us, we have to understand where they live. We have to understand that fatigue exists, which means that it has to be dealt with and accounted for. Calling someone a racist merely tells that person, "I have no faith in your views and no respect for your place in this national conversation." The critique might perhaps be true, but in the absence of a face-to-face conversation or (at the very least) a genuinely extended dialogue which transcends six or eight tweets on one afternoon, it's not going to bring more people to the conversation table.

There are problems which need to be talked about in the wake of today's writings by Bomani Jones. I don't think John Stansberry understood very well what Jones had to say, and I am confident in saying that Stansberry should not have assigned motives to Jones; he should have instead asked questions before deciding to write what he wrote. Moreover, if he was still upset at Jones, he should have held his tongue instead of getting into a Twitter fight.

However, I don't think that the above paragraph makes John Stansberry a racist, and Stansberry shouldn't be hit with that label. Can this larger episode be seen as a teaching tool and a timely reminder - at the end of 2011 - that we need to work very hard to generate meaningful, productive dialogue about race? Yes. Does it need to be seen as a defining indictment of anyone? No - not at all.

How do we improve our society? By confronting tough problems. Bomani Jones is trying to do that, even if you might think he's not doing it the right way.

How can we confront tough problems? By talking about them in ways that foster greater understanding and awareness. Therefore, let's view Jones as the public thinker and conscience-raiser he is, instead of tarring him as an opportunist. Jones's critics, in turn, should be allowed to grow - as we all must grow in our lives, which unfold at different speeds - instead of being labeled as racist. Fatigue is part of the American story on race at this point in time; let's then catch a breath, rest our weary minds (fatigue does make us cranky and ornery, after all...), and be charitable in the way we talk to each other.

Let's also use essays instead of tweets to explain ourselves a little more. That would be a nice development to see in 2012, and just to back up my talk, I'll offer this blog site as a public space for anyone who wants to write an essay/extended commentary to unpack important viewpoints.