BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | JUL 18
A year ago, after the Charleston killings, I wrote:
“I don’t know how we ever get to that national conversation about race that for some reason is the ultimate, if unachievable goal of so many. My friend, the late Bill Gavin, told me years ago that there is no good outcome from a conversation in which two sides do not trust the motivation of the other. And regrettably, those individuals usually thought to be the best to conduct a conversation about race—activists, politicians, academics—are those who seem to question each others’ motivation the most often. They usually cannot extract the politics and prejudice, the suspicion and ulterior motives from their own discourse.”
I write about much that does not stand the test of time, but this does. One year later, we are no closer to honest discourse.
When it comes to race, honest discourse demands more than we are able to produce. I was scolded by a good friend forty years ago when I tried to engage him in a 1970ish conversation about the black experience. His retort was as best I can remember, “you’re not black, you never were black, and you never will be so don’t think you know anything about or can understand what it is to be black.” I’ve never forgotten it. His words filter every thought I have about race.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a white, Southern conservative, said as much to the Atlanta Journal last year:
“It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years to get a sense of this (the danger and discrimination felt by black Americans). If you are a normal white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America, and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”
And then came Senator Marco Rubio, a Southern Hispanic Republican, the man who could have been President, who said last week: “Those of us who are not African American will never fully understand the experience of being black in America. The fact is that there are communities in America where black families tell us that they are fearful of interacting with their local law enforcement. How they feel is a reality that we cannot and should not ignore.”
A young black man in Dallas, the day after the police killings, made a similar point. Kellon Nixon, who along with his 5-year-old son Elijah, participated in the Dallas protest “to show my son that we have rights and that we can express our frustration in a positive way,” was asked if he was afraid. “I am not afraid,” Nixon said. “Being afraid causes a person to act irrationally. One of the biggest problems between African-Americans and the police is that we both are afraid of one another and we both act irrationally…I don’t want them to think we don’t want them to do their jobs according to the law.”
It stands to reason as well, that black Americans are deficient in their understanding of what its like to be white. The same holds true for other races, religious beliefs, and ethnicities. Will there ever be a degree of public education and enlightenment that will enable Christians to understand being a Muslim?
We don’t have to understand what it is like to be in someone else’s skin, we simply have to respect the skin they are in. When it comes to resolving matters of race, maybe race is the first element we set aside for the sake of discussion and concentrate on what we have in common.
The first step in that process is to clear out the clutter, the confusion, and the distractions, beginning with minimizing the influence of media– traditional, cable, and social—many of which are proving themselves utterly unworthy of their Constitutional protections, especially the Black Lives Matter newsletter, the Washington Post. Media make the most money when we are divided and angry with one another, as was collaborated by none less than the CEO of CBS News, Les Moonves, who recently said matter-of-factly what we all knew, that conflict is a money maker.
He was speaking about the primary campaigns at the time, but the application is not unique to politics. There is new breed of journalists are I call ‘narrativists’ who engage in various degrees of storytelling to reinforce a predetermined narrative, whether it is the crisis in climate change, police brutality, or that Donald Trump is really the reincarnation of Adolph Hitler. Narrativists are rewriting the rules of journalism and those rules are stacked against us, even when narrative journalism seems to be working in favor of our point of view.
Next, we should ignore the extremes, on both sides, from the black nationalists and segregationists to the white deniers of racial division and white supremacists. The media make too much of them. They produce dramatic theater, but they reflect only a small minority of the country and they offer absolutely nothing to the furtherance of public dialogue, other than negativity. They take us to our darker side and as President Obama said in his address at the Dallas fallen-police memorial, “We turn on the TV or surf the Internet, and we can watch positions harden and lines drawn, and people retreat to their respective corners, and politicians calculate how to grab attention or avoid the fallout.”
Oddly enough, the President then went on to give endorsement to one of those movements, Black Lives Matter. His words were confusing because he intermingled the organization with the phrase. Those who have embraced movements like the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter have driven us from consensus not toward it and fomented agitation and divisiveness.
We need to identify what is important to us and our communities, and it is not whether Will Smith deserves an Oscar or whether the name of the John C. Calhoun school at Yale, should be changed. That is not to say those questions don’t have legitimacy; they do, of course, but they simply should not have priority and attention over others, especially the loss of life on our streets.
Most importantly, we need to draw upon our spirituality and make it a greater influence in our thoughts and actions. That does not mean going to church and does not necessarily require embracing institutional religion.
But in order to find the trust necessary to accept in good faith the motivation of one we must be able to draw on our spiritual core, whether we are Christian, Judeo or Muslim, or atheist. Really dealing with the issues of race demands no less than a leap of faith, across a vast landscape of preconceived notions, real or imagined prejudices, and a lack of knowledge and understanding. We must ultimately rely on faith as the basis of trust in, and respect for, each other; the ultimate faith in humanity over inhumanity, and a faith that our center–the vast majority of Americans and the common values that drive them, will prevail over the extremes in society, politics, and media.
Trust is tough.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.