As we prepare for the awe of Monday’s solar eclipse so carefully predicted by scientists, we might wonder when we can predict real racial progress. This much we know: Progress is harder when we’re all on different pages.
One of the nice things about an eclipse is that everyone knows the darkness will pass.
I was reading email from readers and thinking about how long this country has wrestled with some fundamental issues without resolving them, and what a complicated equation it would take to predict how and when breakthroughs might happen.
What I noticed in the emails was individuals each bringing their own universe of experiences to bear on issues that we have to address together.
The emails were about last Thursday’s column about Charlottesville, in which I said Nazis, the KKK and monuments celebrating the Confederacy were all part of the tip of an iceberg that reaches into every part of American society and keeps us from being one healthy, united nation.
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There was no drama in an email from a woman named Eva, who grew up in Germany. Some of you may recognize her experience in your lives.
“I am a white female, have only white friends, live in a mostly white neighborhood and really only know one person that is married to a black man and has ‘brown’ children. The subject of race and how her marriage to a black man affects her, how she feels she is treated in the community or overall, has never come up, unfortunately.”
Eva said she grew up in post-Hitler Germany believing we are all the same. “It was never discussed, but I learned from the acts and words of my father and mother.”
And she wrote, “Since coming to America — 50 years ago now — I have lived my life raising my children, working and was never involved in any campaign against this or that — it did not affect me or us, just what was in the news. And the civil rights movement did not register with me in a way that would have made me stand up for it. We and our friends never discussed these issues and till this day, I do not know how they feel about any of these issues.”
The majority of white Americans have only other white people in their closest circle of friends (black and Latino American friendship circles are almost as limited) and most white Americans tell pollsters they rarely talk about race.
Having a large part of the population disengaged from discussion and action means fewer people working toward or supporting solutions.
Eva, who lives in Auburn, wondered if things might be different for her if she lived in the South around black people. Would the difference be positive or negative?
Another reader, Jamie, wrote: “I grew up racist to the core. And my parents didn’t explain anything to me — they just displayed their disdain, always did. So the hatred they showed to me I learned to turn against them when I went away to college and finally was able to have my own thoughts about equality etc. People like that create generational hatred which they do by feeding it into their young before the young ever know what’s happening.”
Somewhere else in the mix was Joe, who said learning about slavery and racism was hurtful. He wrote: “Picture yourself a white 6 year old born in 1959 who learns at that age about slavery, and in my case my reaction which was a feeling of great sorrow about an injustice I cannot cure. As you progress through life, you start to hear about how racism is alive and well, and are introduced to concepts of institutional racism, meaning all whites bear the guilt of slavery, and are still in their core racists. That accusation is not something I am willing to accept, so it rattles me when the media floats notions like institutional racism and white privilege.” So to avoid the pain, Joe has decided that those ideas are overblown. “Racism is big business for politicians and the media.”
Joe, imagine that you are a black 6-year-old born in 1959, who sees a world in which people know their place, and yours is supposed to be at the bottom. I don’t hold you responsible for slavery any more than I’d give you credit for writing the Constitution. You live now and are only responsible for how you live today. Do you make a contribution to the community or detract from it or just worry about whether you’ve folded your socks properly?
There are times when it is easy to forget the problems we have, but we are not living in one of those times. Everyone needs to be awake.
Scientists can calculate just how long it will take for the moon to pass across the sun. No one can figure out with any precision when social progress will happen. Sometimes it can be hard to have faith that it will happen at all. And yet, in so many ways, we live in a better world than the one our grandparents were born into.
Our world is better because people kept pushing, even when they couldn’t see the light.