HERE I GO, playing the race card again. At least that’s what some readers charge every time I even come close to broaching the subject of race.
Many people don’t want to talk about race. The mention of it draws the now worn-out retort, “You’re playing the race card again.” I also get such responses as “You’re the racist for even bringing that up” and “Stop stirring the pot.”
But many discussions about race don’t squarely focus on racism or involve labeling someone racist. The fact that people naturally assume that’s the case affirms a point I’ve been making for years: We don’t talk about race enough.
I’m not talking about obsessing about race. I’m talking about encouraging open, honest and civil discussion to help people of divergent cultures and backgrounds to discuss, discover and embrace their differences as they seek to develop common ground and build stronger relationships.
Let’s be real. The reason many people don’t want to talk about race is that it’s uncomfortable and requires us to look at not only the truth of our horrible past but some of the shakiness of our present. White people don’t want to be linked to racism or called racists, and black people don’t want to acknowledge that sometimes African-Americans can be their own worst enemies.
This emotional issue has divided our country — and our state — for centuries. Many people say that we long left racial issues, and even racism itself, behind. That’s not true. While we’ve made great strides, race remains a divisive issue. Some people would just as soon we ignore it. But that gigantic elephant in the room isn’t going away, not on its own.
I’ve often noted that every important issue our lawmakers grapple with somehow involves race. That burns some people up, and they let me know it, calling me bigoted or accusing me of exaggerating.
We see things differently through our individual cultural and biographical lenses. Wouldn’t it be better to talk about our different perceptions rather than automatically accuse someone of being racist or race-baiting, killing meaningful dialogue?
When I wrote that it was legitimate for Bakari Sellers, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor, to question whether opponent Henry McMaster should be a member of a private club that excluded blacks, a reader emailed that Mr. McMaster was not a racist and his affiliation had nothing to do with his ability to serve.
I responded, in part: “I think Mr. McMaster could be a good lt. governor as well. … The issue isn’t about whether he’s racist; that never was anything I suggested. What I did suggest is that those who ask to lead on behalf of all the people should understand that the relationships and memberships they have are fair game. We know the history of many private clubs and how both business deals and seeds of public policy were sown within those exclusionary walls. … I appreciate you being willing to reach out and let me know how you feel.”
The reader’s response? “Thanks — great response.”
We didn’t agree on everything, but we agreed to talk.
If we’re going to move forward, we must learn how to talk about race — and then to address the tough issues that come along with it constructively. That’s key: It’s not enough to talk; we must have dialogue that leads to solutions and action.
When I write about race, I’m not writing just for black people. I want to challenge myself and readers to grow beyond where we are.
There are times when I point out glaring inequities and inequalities that still exist as vestiges of slavery, Jim Crowism and segregation and challenge individuals and institutions, particularly government, to make a change. Some white people wince at that. There also are times when I challenge black fathers to be more active in their children’s lives, point out that black-on-black crime is too high and challenge us all to help address the plight of black boys, who are too involved in gangs, violence and other ills.
We must create an atmosphere in which it’s OK to discuss race. Race in and of itself isn”t bad. While we have divided ourselves into different races, we’re all of one cloth (one race?), rich in diversity. Our diversity is a strength when we embrace one another and have civil conversations that lead to solutions and constructive action. Problems come when race is used as a criterion to discriminate against or disenfranchise people. That’s racism.
Do I sometimes call out racist and bigoted activity? Absolutely. We all should. But we must get ahead of such crises by forging relationships that lead to inclusive, unified communities that ensure people are treated equitably and fairly.
Most people who respond to my columns are well-reasoned and calm, even when they disagree. But all too often, the opportunists and extremists of both races are the most vocal in framing our most important issues, which can be destructive.
People of good will must not allow that to happen. They must actively work as individuals and through the many institutions that shape our society to establish relationships that lead to trust and a deeper respect for all.
Reach Mr. Bolton
at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.