“Among the many depressing aspects of recent years, perhaps the most troubling is the ease with which race has returned as an issue – bandied about by people who either cannot possibly realize the danger of the game they are playing or who do know precisely what they are playing at, which is unforgivable.”Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds, 254.
Since April 2020, I have, like most of the American public, been consumed with thoughts of race. After the outrage over the killing of Ahmad Arbery case in Georgia, and the subsequent bungling of his case, I noticed social media friends posting comments that I did not quite understand. “It was two white guys killing an unarmed black guy. Of course it was racism.” “The whole D.A.’s office is racist: why do you think they dragged their feet?”
I couldn’t understand the rush to judgment over the motive.
Following the egregious killing of George Floyd by (now former) police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, and the unrest that followed, more rhetoric flowed across social media, videos, interviews, etc. that did not make sense to me. “Those cops were racist.” “Police brutality against minorities is systemic.” “The police have a racism problem.” “There is structural racism in policing.” “Defund the police.”
What did all of this mean? It seemed that Derek Chauvin had used force beyond what was necessary. Was it because of Mr. Floyd’s race?
I couldn’t understand how that meant that an entire system was racist.
I wanted to know the truth. So, I began a personal investigation into the claims and the rhetoric of racism. I reached out to acquaintances through social media hoping to begin a dialogue about these issues. Some was done through text, some FaceTime, some phone, some in-person. I read books (some that were recommended to me), I listened to podcasts (from both sides), I watched YouTube videos, etc. Through it all I have come to some firm convictions about the issues of race and racism.
Those convictions must wait for other posts.
This post is about something else. Through this journey I have observed several problems surrounding conversations about race/racism. Open dialogue would have been a beneficial first step to resolving questions about the race/racism issue. Sadly, that’s not what I have found in every conversation I tried to have (or listen to).
What are the problems that I have observed in some of the current “conversations” about race?
Most of the “Conversations” are One-Sided, One-Directional
“Not one academic involved in the pushing of identity politics and intersectionality has come from the conservative right.”Murray, 52.
When I think of a conversation, I tend to think of dialogue: two people exchanging facts and opinions about a particular issue. (Maybe my thinking on that is skewed.) A dialogue, therefore, is not a monologue: the “conversation” doesn’t go in one direction or present just one side.
However, the “conversations” about race tend to be monologues. Most of the discussion is simply a window into some individual’s or group’s echo chamber. Clearly this isn’t how it should be. Consider the varied opinions about race as it stands today:
Some people claim that racism is systemic or structural; others disagree, claiming that, though there are instances of bigotry, the systemic aspect of racism has been dealt with.
Some people believe that policing disparately affects minorities which proves that police are racially biased; others point out that any policing measure is bound to affect blacks disparately since they are disparately involved in criminal activity.
Some people believe that the American system (education, finance, public policy, etc.) is rigged against people of color; others explain that racial preferences in college admissions, hiring, etc. suggest that the system is rigged… in favor of people of color.
Do you see the point? There is not a consensus as to what is true about race and racism in America; there are (I hope we can agree) at least two narratives about race and racism in America. (Where the narratives of systemic racism originate will be dealt with in a future post.) Unfortunately, most of the “conversations” have simply transferred the ethic of social media into real-life discussions. Let’s just say it hasn’t turned out well.
To have a “clarifying conversation” about race, both sides of the issue must come together and be willing to hear each other out. (Why it is difficult to do that will be addressed in a later post.) Too many people disagree about what is true in the area of race to be making assumptions or advancing claims without proof. True dialogue would make our attempts to understand the facts of these issues more fruitful.
No Clear, Agreed-Upon Definition of Terms
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, chapter 6.
No truth-seeking conversation can take place when the parties are not agreed as to what they are talking about. Clearly defining our terms may seem like an obvious first step to having meaningful dialogue, but I have found that it is absurdly absent in discussions about race.
For example, I recently listened to a podcast regarding race relations in the Church. I was astounded when the host commented that if we approach a discussion of race relations expecting to have our terms clearly defined first, our discussions will never even get started. I do not understand how you can have an intelligent, logical discussion about an important and significant issue unless the terms are clearly delineated. It is mind-numbingly ignorant to believe that you can.
Compounding the absurdity of this idea is that people use terms without understanding them. I remember a conversation in which an individual suggested that, “Yes, racism is systemic.” When I pressed him on what he meant by “systemic racism,” he could not answer. (The only illustration I received attempting to show rather than explain systemic racism was a pre-Civil Rights Act story. But, of course, no sane person with an understanding of history disputes that a racialized system was in place prior to 1964.)
Further problematizing a discussion occurs when speakers give terms their own definitions. The hosts of another podcast addressed the topic of “Police Brutality” but appeared to give the term brutality their own definition. According to the definition of brutality that they themselves had given, police brutality was a problem and it was racially motivated. Creating such an epistemic bubble does not advance the conversation except in their direction. That is their right since it is their platform. But it is also manipulative, disingenuous, and high-handed.
Terms mean something, and in order to discuss any issue clearly and helpfully, we must understand the terms and agree to their meaning. This is especially necessary when the discussion surrounds an issue for which what is true has not yet reached consensus.
Not Much Deference or Grace Over Disagreement
“Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.”Philippians 2:3
I admit that I have been critical of some discussions that I have had and heard (see above). However, I do not hate the people who engaged in, what I consider to be, illogical speech. I disagree with both their conclusions and their approach. But, it’s okay for us to disagree. The reason we are having “conversations,” presumably, is because we are searching for the truth, or at least to understand one another.
Again, consider why there would be disagreements on this issue. People’s experiences in America vary widely regardless of “race.” There are many Whites who struggle to keep a job, wrestle with addictions and domestic violence, and burden the welfare system due to dysfunctional families (see Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance). Conversely, Shelby Steele, Condoleezza Rice, Thomas Sowell, Barak Obama and a myriad of professional athletes have all achieved a level of success that many white Americans never will. Can’t you at least see why there would be disagreements over claims of systemic racism in America today?
Unfortunately, the polarization of our country harms our ability to disagree amicably. If you disagree with me, we’re done. The biblical ethics of humility and deference are absent in these discussions, replaced by pride and self-promotion.
“Yeah, well, you should hear me.” And I do. But I can hear about your experience and recognize that it has been different than mine without accepting as true any claim you make that remains unproven. I can empathize with you based on your experience but I can, at the same time, disagree with any broader conclusions you draw from it if it doesn’t conform to other empirical facts. That should be okay.
(And, besides, couldn’t I make the same argument to you? Shouldn’t you hear my facts? Or does my color preclude me?)
No Talk of Forgiveness
“In some manner with which we still haven’t even begun to wrestle, we have created a world in which forgiveness has become almost impossible, in which the sins of the father can certainly be visited upon the son. And we remain remarkably unconcerned to create any mechanisms or consensus over how to address the resulting conundrum.”Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds, 182.
To be held perpetually guilty as a race for crimes which the current generation has not committed is a striking conundrum indeed. As I read Murray’s interlude, “On Forgiveness,” in his excellent book The Madness of Crowds, I was struck. Here was a gay atheist talking about forgiveness in relation to the issues of historical wrongs. I wondered to myself why I had not heard my Christian brothers and sisters talking about it. I wondered why I had to hear the problem first addressed by a gay atheist (no offense meant to him).
When do Southern Whites of the antebellum era get to be forgiven for the immoral institution of slavery? Is it when every statue of Robert E. Lee is toppled? When every grade school named for a slave-owning white man is renamed in honor of American minorities? Or is there no forgiveness for them? At what point does the dredging up of historical grievances cease to be a pursuit of “justice,” and begin to be called for what it is, belligerent unforgiveness?
Previous generations of (actually) oppressed peoples found it within themselves to forgive their oppressors of some of the most heinous crimes, even within their own lifetimes. Can we (I speak to Christians who have accepted the claims of systemic racism) not forgive (and forget) wrongs done before we were ever born?
“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”Matthew 6:14-15
(Now, I understand that a claim is being made that the oppression and racism of the past have merely been hidden in the systems of today. However, I would like to point out that “hidden” and “systemic” racism is a claim that remains unproven, and for the proving or disproving of it dialogue (as we are discussing here) should be pursued.)
Judgmentalism about the Past
“It requires a level of naivety to imagine that a piece from a magazine published in 1916 would meet the precise social criteria of 2018.”Murray, 138.
C.S. Lewis called the tendency to judge the past by the standards of the present “chronological snobbery.” It is an attitude that Douglas Murray describes as
“the strange retributive instinct of our time towards the past which suggests that we know ourselves to be better than people in history because we know how they behaved and we know that we would have behaved better.”Murray, 179.
The way people dredge up historical wrongs and drag them into the court of contemporary opinion makes it seem as if we own the rights to moral superiority. To suggest that we have the right to condemn the past because we know and understand things now that they did not should be immediately recognized as both arrogant and ignorant. It is the past that has shaped our knowledge and understanding in the present. It is as if we have forgotten that we stand on their shoulders.
Furthermore, how would we like to be judged by future generations? If we were to apply the principle of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” perhaps we should be a little more charitable (forgiving?) toward those who came before us in hopes that those who come after us will extend the same kindness.
While it is fair to acknowledge the mistakes of our forebears, demonizing and “cancelling” them does us no good. Isn’t their ongoing presence in our historical consciousness a reminder of the errors of the past so that we do not repeat them? Rather than reconstructing history (i.e., The 1619 Project), we should respect the figures of history who established the founding principles our country and steered it through difficult days. Where we find their works not so good, we should not try to erase them, but determine to remember them. By remembering, we can strive to do better than they did based on the knowledge that they themselves have imparted to us by their own lives, faulty as they might have been at times. We should recognize as well that the vast majority were good people who operated within their cultural circumstance as best they could, the same as you and I must do today.
They did not know what you and I do (mostly because they hadn’t lived it yet). It is at best unfair to constantly judge them as if they should have.
Changing the Way We See Each Other
“…in recent years an insidious current has developed that has chosen to reject Dr King’s dream, and insist that content of character is nothing compared to the colour of someone’s skin. It has decided that skin colour is everything.”Murray, 121.
Of all the problems, I find this to be the worst. This does not relate to the conversation itself, but to a by-product of these conversations.
Prior to this purposeful investigation, I can honestly say that the people I met, interacted with, etc. were, in my view, people first. Skin color played no part in my evaluation of them. I believed in (and tried to live by) the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that people should be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. When I saw a black person, I saw another person.
I am sorry to say, that has changed. And I loathe it.
I will not share with you how my perception has changed, but I am guessing that your’s has as well. This “conversation” we’re supposed to be having hasn’t helped us. Everything is made to be about skin color now: how can that not be a complete repudiation of Dr. King’s “dream”?
Even police (because of the claims about them and their occupation) are viewed differently. Their very occupation (of being a police officer) is said to have “a twinge of racism attached to it.” I guess racism is en vogue again as long as it’s aimed at the right target.
Blacks are not the enemy. Whites are not the enemy. Police are not the enemy. The system is not the enemy.
Lies, half-truths, and unproven claims are.
While I hope that my conversations are not at an end, I have come to understand the direction they must now take.