Who Cares About Race?

I’ve never had the pleasure of having a black person as a best friend, or anything beyond a casual acquaintance. I’ve never dated a black woman, nor have I ever asked one out. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in an all-white suburb of Chicago. I went to an all-white Catholic boys high school and a nearly all-white private college.

I’ve never lived in a town that is more than 10% black, nor have I ever lived in a city run by blacks. I’ve never had a black next-door neighbor, nor have I lived in a neighborhood where blacks were more than a scattered presence.  I have never had occasion to visit an all-black neighborhood or attend an event where a majority of the crowd is black. And I’ve never been approached by a black man while walking down a dark street at night, wondering if I should cross the street or not.

I suppose this makes me sheltered, naive, even ignorant of the way the world works and the how the racial divide colors our attitudes in our everyday lives. Frankly, I don’t care. I’ve never cared. Race has never been a factor in any decision I’ve made about where to live, where to work, or who my friends are. I’ve never been about to sign a lease to an apartment and stopped short, saying to myself, “Gee — maybe I should try to find a place that has more diversity.” Nor have I ever turned down a job because there weren’t enough black people working there. I’ve never avoided blacks, nor have I made a conscious effort to cultivate a friendship of a black person because I believed it would expand my horizons, or make me — somehow — a better person.

Of course, I can afford this attitude because I’m white. I doubt very much that there has ever been a black person in the history of America who has lived a life without thinking about race in some way or another almost every day. But I don’t dwell on such matters. Why should I? Because it proves I “care”? Spare me the sanctimony. I don’t have to prove anything to anybody, least of all those who feel it necessary to tell the rest of us how insensitive or racist we are because we don’t weep for the unfortunates of the world.

Besides, it is impossible to discuss race in this country. There is one, and only one, narrative about race, and if you don’t subscribe to it, debate is closed off and the apostate branded a racist. An exaggeration? The exaggeration is in the constant misconstruing of intent and twisting of words by those who wish to control the conversation about race for political or other purposes. Eric Holder was wrong. It’s not a lack of courage that keeps us from discussing race, it is a lack of respect that refuses one side the legitimacy of their views.

For example, some of the issues raised in John Derbyshire’s article in Taki’s Magazine that got him fired from National Review need vetting. Yes, much of Derbyshire’s screed was ignorant, uninformed, and considered racist by many. But reading comments on a dozen blog posts discussing the article shows that Derbyshire’s “advice” to his children about black people struck a chord with many white Americans. As with most internet comments, there was the usual mix of stupidity, intolerance, and even blatant hate. But that does not obviate the fact that there is a perception that at least some of what Derbyshire wrote rang true. And true or false, it’s real and should be dealt with.

As should the false perceptions in the black community about white attitudes and behavior be brought in the open. Whether you believe Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton is hardly the point. They are expressing a perceived truth in the black community that begs to be addressed. But it is impossible as long as it is only their perception — true or false — that stands as the basis for discussion. White concerns and perceptions are irrelevant. We can’t discuss affirmative action or any other public policy affecting race for the same reason. Racial tolerance is a one-way street in America and will be as long as there is no recognition that for progress to be made, there must be an acknowledgement that false perceptions dominate on both sides of the divide.

We might start by stopping the constant generalizing about both races. We try to take people one at a time as they come at us, but don’t always succeed, of course. This doesn’t make you any more or less tolerant than the next fellow. But it’s far too easy to become trapped by stereotypes and wallow in generalities about this or that race or ethnicity. It’s part of the human condition, as is fear of “the other” and a propensity for everyone to live, work, love, and die around people who look like you. Try as we might — “raising consciousness”; exposing children to different races, lifestyles, and religions — it doesn’t matter. There is a genetic predisposition to avoid those who are different. And that includes all races, not just whites or blacks.

But my own experience has given me no reason to hate or fear black people. No black person has ever harmed me or mine. No black person has ever said an unkind word to me, nor have black people  exhibited anything but courtesy and respect toward me. Of course, I watch TV and hear the voices of hate and separatism, as well as the cries of genuine despair, misery, and perceived oppression. But aside from getting angry at everybody, what’s to be done? It is here that the Serenity Prayer comes in handy:

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

As individuals, we are told we can “make a difference.” I suppose that’s true to a certain extent. But as adults, we know the limitations of that cliche. I don’t apologize for being indifferent about race, because it’s not the same thing as being indifferent about racism. If there’s anything I can do beyond disapproval of open expressions of race hatred, I will. But I probably speak for a lot more white people than some might feel comfortable contemplating when I acknowledge that I believe these blow-ups about race have far more to do with power and politics than they do with racism or someone’s notion of “justice.” And ultimately, it is futile to think that will change.

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