Racial Politics: Why our Rhetoric Matters

I heard an interview on the radio the other day…

I am not even sure of the station or the program as I was driving out of the area.  But the program host was discussing with guests and callers the situation surrounding one of the recent shootings of black men by police officers, and the surrounding protests, the movements, the politics, the social forces, etc.

A woman called in and said something that I thought was profoundly important about race relations in our country.

She identified herself as an 'older, African-American, woman,' and she proceeded to say that in her experience white bigotry is no longer an important factor in our racial problems, rather white apathy is the problem.  She talked about other factors (the history of bigotry, and the black community's own apathy), but she talked mostly about how problematic and inaccurate it was to diagnose the problem as 'white racism;' in her experience, most white people aren't racists, they just aren't willing to do much of anything about the plight of black communities if it costs them personally.

I thought this profoundly important for several reasons:

1) Its true: while it is true that bigotry endures in our day, it is not the problem that it once was.  It is no longer acceptable by our culture, indeed calling someone a racist in many circles is a serious charge that most people will respond to with strong emotions.  The majority of white people in America are completely in favor of a society where people of all colors can freely share in the wealth, power, and blessing of our nation, and they are personally willing to engage relationally with people of all colors.  …but not if it costs them anything to do so!

2) Its informed: she had obviously spent enough time engaging with white people that she understood what was going on inside the hearts and minds of individuals and communities.  This is not just about proximity, but also about a desire to understand those who are different than you.

3) Its honest: saying what is true about a situation, instead of throwing insults at one's socio-political opponents, is a display of integrity.  It feels good to insult people, especially if they have hurt you.  But calling someone a bigot, when you know that they are not a bigot, is simply dishonest.

4) Its helpful: imagine a Doctor who was so bent on the eradication of cancer that he diagnosed every patient he saw with cancer and gave them chemotherapy and radiation treatment.  Compare that to a Doctor who was so concerned with the health of her patients that she carefully and methodically diagnosed each patient's symptoms for their various root causes and then applied the appropriate treatment for each individual case.  It simply doesn't help to call someone a racist who isn't a racist.  That usually only produces righteous indignation, and resolute opposition.  It simply doesn't help to ignore apathy in a lazy person or a lazy society.  Pointing at the real problem helps highlight the real solution.  A misdiagnosis erodes trust and hurts everyone involved.

5) Its generous: it would be easier to point at the actual white racism that exists.  It would be easier to point at the rhetoric of politicians who foment racial fear to gain votes.  But instead, she chose to look beyond that, to give people the benefit of the doubt, and to seek to understand.  She wanted to point at what was good in the white community and their response to racial politics.

6) Its hopeful: seeking to have an honest dialogue about a sticky topic is an indicator that you want to see progress.  Too often sticky topics are simply used by those attempting to gain political power.  Calling names, provoking anger, inciting fear, fomenting dissension, this is what we see politicians do with all divisive issues, and with race in particular.  They do it so that they can get elected.  But it doesn't help us heal, it actually gets in the way.  To hear a woman speak this way is an indicator that she actually hopes for healing; she actually believes our society can change.

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