Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Will Franklin on racism

The very gifted Will Franklin who I think is the "Will" in "Willisms" dot com, speaks candidly about how he as an under-thirty white guy is getting tired of hearing about racism. He does not remember a time when talk about the disadvantages of black people in America was not part of the sub-text of every conversation and article making even indirect references to race. He knows abut history. He is well-informed about the world around him, and he is tired, really tired, of being beat up with stuff that he does not feel has any meaningful connection with him.

As an under-30 white guy, I never lived through segregation or systematic discrimination against African-Americans. I never saw Martin Luther King, Jr. in person or live on television. Lynchings, not really part of my lifetime. Back of the bus type stuff, might as well be ancient history. Color-barriers being broken (sports, politics, etc.) mostly happened before my time. I never lived through any of that. It's all distant history to my generation.

That is pretty straightforward and I can appreciate it. My own kids don't want to hear about it either. Interestingly enough, neither do many of the black kids that I meet today. Since I am an old white guy they presume immediately that I am just another relic of past generations with all the prejudice and lack of understanding that went along with that crowd. Unless and until I make it a point to say otherwise, to tell them personal stories about what I was doing when I was their age, they only see me as a two-dimensional white closet racist.

Will's post was inspired by a snip from a tirade by a Holltywood actor I have never heard of...

“If I hear one more person tell me how this man is a man of faith, I think I'll lose my mother-f*ck*ng mind [audience applause]. Let me tell you why. I'll tell you why. He left his ranch in Crawford to see about one woman, Terry Schiavo, he left his ranch early. But when thousands and thousands of people were being, dying in New Orleans, this son of a b*tch didn't do sh*t, and that's very un-Christlike to me.”

He links to the source which fames the quote in a way calculated to illustrate the bias and ignorance of liberals in general and black people in particular (Uh, think about that for a moment...), doing so in a very workmanlike manner if the comments that followed are any measure of success. But Will himself is more circumspect. He also links to a less inflammatory and more intellectually challenging interview with Shelby Steele.

Sixty years ago, Shelby Steele was born to a black truck driver and a white social worker in Chicago. His parents were active in the struggle for civil rights, and encouraged him to make the most of his personal opportunities.

After completing a doctorate in English, Steele taught literature at San Jose State University. In 1990, he received the National Book Critic’s Circle Award for his book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America.

Today, Steele is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where he focuses on race relations, multiculturalism, and affirmative action. His next book, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, will be released in May.

Whaddya know! Another old guy like me. And not too dumb, it seems.
Steele drives home some great points that young Will is eager to hear, I'm sure, because it underscores the overall point he is trying to make, that the tired old relics of the American Civil Rights Movement are obsolete. In his interview, Shelby Steele says as much.

TAE: Let’s talk more about George Bush and the Republican Party. Bush has promoted the concept of the ownership society, and has helped black homeownership, for instance, reach an all-time high. People who own things tend to be more conservative. And Bush has courted the black vote more aggressively than any other Republican President. Yet he’s still not getting it—why?

STEELE: It’s just amazing to me—he keeps getting slapped.
I don’t think I’ll live to see it, but I don’t expect anything to change until the current civil rights leadership just dies off. They’re really past their usefulness at this point, and they’ve become part of the problem. They’re concerned with nothing except keeping their people in the Democratic Party.

He goes on to talk about how issues of race interesect with party politics, which is, I suppose, an appropriate concern for a successful, well-educated erudite black professional. Like all successful, erudite people the rational place to find a home is in the Republican Party, repository of success and erudition in America. Ain't no gangstas gonna go there. You bet.

Important points are made in the Steele interview. Especially points about how family support and education are connected. I recommend reading it completely. But my plea this morning, to Will Franklin and all the smart young people he represents, is to be patient and cut a little more slack to our black American cousins. I am as disgusted as he and everybody else is with crime, the gimme-mind-set, crass rudeness and profanity of street talk, proliferation of children born out of wedlock, and all the rest. But I also know that we are witnessing first hand what happens after four of five generations when family bonds and mother tongues were systematically and deliberately destroyed by force.

And yes, I am talking about slavery and it's aftermath. Those bright, achievement-oriented Asian kids that Steele talks about in the San Jose city schools have something that their peers likely do not have. Despite their immigrant status and material handicaps, those kids have been nurtured by the same kind of family stability, balance and appreciation for learning that were also part of Steele's birthright. He describes it quite well.

My father was a poor black from the South, born in 1900, with a third-grade education. My mother was raised in Ohio with a decent amount of money, and earned her master’s degree. I suppose my father was the more intellectual of the two—he certainly read more books—but I only knew them as my mother and my father. I didn’t know them as emblems or representatives of a race.

So being raised by them gave me a profound secret that other people who have dealt with race don’t have: I knew that behind the race, there’s nothing other than human beings; that’s why whenever I write about race, my point of departure has always been human nature.
I understand race, but I better understand the basics of humanity—human motivations, human incentives. No matter what the question is, if you look for answers in someone’s race, you’ll never get anywhere. That’s one of the real advantages that my background has given me.

Interesting, isn't it, that his father, the formally less-educated of his parents, is described as "the much more intellectual of the two"? This is not a mystery for me. I imagine that any poor black from the South born in 1900 would not have had the advantages of formal education. But that doesn't mean that he was also missing, as the Asian immigrants are also not missing, the advantages of a loving home and parental support. As Steele says, his background has enabled him to understand better the basics of humanity.

There is much to reflect upon in this morning's readings.

Afterthought from here...I don't know which I wish for more: traffic to my blog, or better insights for those who read it. Most of my traffic is coming from Google hits. It seems the average time for a visit, according to the Site Meter data, is about two and a half minutes on a good day. I guess I'm a slow reader or something. Sometimes it takes me a day or two to figure something out. And two minutes isn't time enough for me to get to the end of most sentences.


Will Franklin said...

Thanks for that post. I guess a lot of my impatience stems from the fact that a lot of white people I respect, conservative and liberal alike, have become somehow hardened by the whole "Katrina thing." People without a racist bone in their bodies have expressed racial resentment and even anger about being made to feel responsible/guilty for Katrina.

Hoots said...

"Hardened" is exactly the right word. It has happened to all of us. Fatigue is the result. I'm tired, too. Whenever I hear a black kid make an oblique remark suggesting that I have a problem with race, I want to unleash a hail of retorts, starting with "I was on a picket line, Sonny, before you were born..." But I tell myself, one more time, that he is only reflecting the same level of ignorance that Steele alluded to when he spoke of "human nature."

Katrina revealed a sorry underside of America that brings shame to us all. Added to the breath-taking ineptitude and poor judgements of local and statte officials was an embarrassing lack of intervention all the way up the federal level. I recall a radio talk show taking a caller from Australia the morning after who asked, incredulously "Where are your amphibious water-craft???" When he asked that I had the same reaction. If the military can move aircraft carriers around the world in response to a tsunami, then why could not the military have been put to use in this time of national emergency? I still have not found a good answer.

It is a sad accident of demographics that so many black people were hit with tragedy. But maybe not. My instinct is that there is still an uneven distribution of safety nets along racial lines (insurance, housing values, access to medical care come to mind) as well as a very clear generational net worth disparity and the dissolution of extended family already mentioned. You have the resources and aptitude to look into some of this. It might be worth a look. I can tell you that red-lining (banking, insurance, real estate) was a problem mentioned as recently as six or eight years ago. Modern racism, like fraudulent accounting, has become a lot more sophistocated than in the past.