Thoughts on Our Way Back - Dateline Las Vegas
During one of my book events this week in Las Vegas, a person asked me about how I see race playing into the issues surrounding the people’s retreat from public life and politics. I believe it plays a big role, and it is an issue we must squarely address in our society. The person asking the question meant race in terms of blacks and whites. I recognize that there are larger issues at work in terms of race and ethnicity other than the separation of blacks and whites, but today I want to limit my response to this framing because it was the context of the initial question. The very fact that so many Americans have retreated from public life and politics makes dealing with race more difficult in our current times. We are cloistered in our close-knit circles of families and friends, among people who look and sound and think much like ourselves. Whites and blacks may be more separated today than at any point in time I have been doing this work. Then there is the issue of how one defines the challenge before us. In all of my work, I have come to believe that white Americans define the problem as “race relations” – that is, how can whites and blacks get along better. African-Americans, on the other hand, more often define the challenge as “racism” – that is, a problem rooted in prejudice, bigotry and privilege. So, one of the key challenges we must bridge is what to talk about. Another challenge is how to talk about race. My experience is that most people – both whites and blacks – are afraid to talk to one another about this issue. Different words are loaded with different meanings for different people; most of us are fearful of the emotions that are felt and get expressed along the way; and there is little room for giving people the benefit of the doubt – we are looking to confirm our worst assumptions about each other. Many of the points I have made in this entry, could be said about many issues that confront our communities and nation today. We simply have squeezed the necessary room out of public life and politics for any real and genuine discussions and debates that are needed in order to make progress on tough challenges. But I am especially concerned about race – its meaning, the challenges before us, our inability to talk about what we can and should do, and what is says about who we are today. For instance, race (and class and power) is one the main subtexts of rebuilding the Gulf Coast. And yet, my suspicion is that we will sweep that challenge under the rug by simply deluging the region with federal rebuilding dollars, acting as if money can remedy the race challenges we face. They won’t; indeed, they will even exacerbate the problem if we seek to pretend there are no underlying issues at work here. I often say in speeches that we can do better in America and one area I discuss is the need to rid ourselves of prejudice, hatred and bigotry in our society. Of course, we can’t completely rid ourselves of such beliefs and actions; but we can and should work much harder. Why? As someone asked me just the other day, “There’s nothing new here; haven’t we always faced this issue?” My answer was, “Yes, but we are becoming a nation that is more diverse not less. We are becoming a nation where the gap between the haves and the have-not is expanding, not narrowing. And we are becoming a nation where people are retreating from one another, where the distance between us is only growing.” The very nature of the problem and the conditions surrounding it are changing -- and not for the better. In our retreat from public life and politics we have turned away from one another. The very first step we must take is to find our way back to the public square so we can see each other again and begin a genuine conversation that money cannot buy.