Obama may be on to something--maybe throwing back a few with is the future of conflict resolution.
By Gregory Rodriguez
As simple as that sounds, it's actually heresy in the world of professional human relations, which is partial to statistics, mediation and the tit-for-tat airing of grievances. The other day, Yale University Press sent me the newly published report of President Clinton's 1997 Initiative on Race. It's full of really exciting bar graphs, testimony and legislative recommendations--the stuff of dialogue. I don't mean to be ungrateful or anything but, really, who's going to read that? And if they did, what exactly would it change?
Maybe it's because their paychecks depend on it, but there's still an entire cast and crew of academic and activist "race experts" who insist that if Americans of different backgrounds sit down together, it should be to air their historical grievances, not just to drink a beer. I don't agree. Is there anyone left who has not yet heard of slavery or Jim Crow or prejudice or discrimination? At this point in our history, progress is no longer about "educating" anyone except school kids about the past.
Nor will racial harmony be forged by race leaders and representatives speaking on behalf of millions of their fellow whatevers. In any racial "dialogue," the black man (or the white woman) automatically becomes a representative for the whole kit and caboodle. He is obliged to read from a script that he didn't necessarily write. By definition, to speak of race is to speak in generalizations. The individual is subsumed by the collective.
But isn't that the source of racial incidents in the first place? Isn't the very nature of prejudice the act of superimposing generally negative characteristics that one attributes to a group onto all members of that group? Isn't racism itself the act of stripping away someone's individuality?
Romantic as they were, the days in which collective action led to racial progress are long gone. The next step requires intimacy and individuals. We know that younger Americans are far more tolerant of each others' differences than their elders. We think that it's because they were raised in much more diverse environments. That tells us that it is everyday, routine contact with individuals of various backgrounds that helps erode the generalizations that serve as rationales for discrimination.
The lesson, then, is that we need to create more opportunities for mixed-race communication that isn't obligatory and isn't self-consciously about race. We're more likely to understand how race is lived by listening to one person's stories of his childhood and how he got his middle name, rather than studying the data on a cohort.
First, there's Rodriguez's claim about education: "Is there anyone left who has not yet heard of slavery or Jim Crow or prejudice or discrimination?" Most people have heard of these things--although I bet they'd fumble the term "Jim Crow." But how many truly understand them? How many think anything deeper than, "Oh, racism is something that used to happen. But now we've elected a black man president, so it's over."
We know that many Americans are woefully ignorant about Indians. I haven't seen an opinion poll, but I bet most Americans know more about the stereotypes (savages, teepees, chiefs, etc.) than the reality. Even those who should know better, like the German "hobbyists" who supposedly love Indians, focus on the past. People still need a lot of education on this subject.
Second, Rodriguez claims the current generation has learned about race "because they were raised in much more diverse environments." A big part of this environment are the ongoing efforts to educate people. Schools have upgraded their curricula significantly since I was young. Many movies and TV shows try to include minorities and portray them accurately. And so forth and so on.
I'm sure there's more racial mixing on a personal level too. But Rodriguez is deluding himself if he thinks most Americans have met Indians and learned to accept them in person. The majority of people's exposure to Indians still comes through the media.
No need for collective action?
Rodriguez claims "the days in which collective action led to racial progress are long gone." Maybe, but there's no evidence of that. All we know is that the collective approach successfully put women and minorities on the map in the 1960s and 1970s. If it worked once, it can work again.
Nor is there any evidence that the "beerfest" approach works better--or works, period. Will Officer Crowley be more sensitive the next time he meets Professor Gates? Will he be more sensitive to Gates but treat other blacks the way he treated Gates? We don't know and we probably won't find out.
I think more is going on here than simply one approach vs. another. Some places and institutions (e.g., the military) are well-integrated and don't seem to have racial problems. Other places and institutions (e.g., the police) are well-integrated but still seem to have problems. When a police profiling or beating or shooting incident occurs, minority cops are likely to be involved too. Working side by side with these cops hasn't ended the police's "us vs. them" mentality.
We've heard stories about how bad Rapid City is. How is that possible if 10% or whatever of its population is Native--if whites and Indians live and work together in close proximity? If Rodriguez were right, Rapid City would be the least racist place in America, not the most racist.
We're back to educating people about others, not just exposing them to others. I think police officers, teachers, social workers, doctors--i.e., people in public positions--still go through diversity training. Why is that necessary if seeing and meeting people is enough? Answer: Because it isn't enough.
Despite these comments, I'm all in favor of the "beerfest" approach. I like the idea of kids meeting real Indians in class, for instance. As long as the presentations are authentic and not stereotypical, I think they help.
That's part of what I'm doing here: a cyberspace version of the "beerfest" approach. I'm quoting Native writers who tell their own stories, and Natives are commenting on these stories. In the privacy of our homes, we're essentially sitting around and chatting with Indians about Indians.
I'm also encouraging people to see and read things that portray Natives authentically. Seeing an accurate portrayal isn't quite the same as sitting down and breaking bread with an Indian, but it also isn't a harangue on genocide and broken treaties. It's a mix of exposure and education.
Of course, it's impossible to have everyone meet with everyone else. We educate people through schools and the media precisely because we can't educate everyone one-on-one. The remote approach is a necessity in our vast, sprawling culture.
As I always say, my bottom line is "whatever works." If someone could prove my blogging had no effect, I'd probably give it up. I'd switch to arranging coffee klatsches between Indians and non-Indians. But only if someone could prove that approach works.
I think we need both approaches. In fact, I think we need a whole range of approaches--especially since people learn in different ways. I say let's keep trying every approach until 1) there's proof that only one approach works, or 2) our racial problems disappear.
For more on the subject, see "Birthers" = Scared White People and Highlights of the US Report to the UN on Racism.