Monday, January 16, 2006

Black Ink, White Page
On this MLK Day, let me say first that I am not sure a white guy should be pontificating about race relations. Especially not a white guy of Norwegian ancestry who lives in a suburb that's 98 to 99 percent white (albeit in the most racially diverse neighborhood of that suburb). In fact, the opinions of the general run of white people--who know about black American life on a second-hand basis at best--are not entirely reliable. So when you hear that 78 percent of white Americans think that significant progress has been made toward racial equality in the United States, consider the source--and then take note that among black Americans, the figure is 66 percent.

The same poll notes, interestingly enough, that more suburbanites believe in progress than urbanites, and more Republicans than Democrats. In other words--if you neither are, nor live with, nor make common cause politically with black Americans, you are more likely to believe progress is being made toward racial equality. You probably could have predicted that without a poll. (The good thing, at least, is that majorities in all demographic groups see progress.)

I am not sure that agreement with a statement that the country has "made progress toward racial equality," which is what the AP/IPSOS poll asked about, is the same as agreement with a statement that "race relations are better." On one level, of course they are--race relations are a lot better now than they were 50 years ago. But what about a comparison between now and 25 years ago, or 10? Somewhere there are probably objective standards by which it can be measured, but I don't know what they are. What I suspect is this: Despite living in a politically correct age, we talk about racial issues in much harsher terms now than we used to. I'm not talking about white people throwing around the word "nigger"--I'm talking about white people's opinions about black culture, black employment and career aspirations, black family structure, and so on. White people are a lot more blunt about expressing themselves on those issues now, whereas a generation ago we might have thought the same things, but would have taken care to whisper about them.

You can argue that talking out loud is more honest than whispering, and thereby better--and it is, when the talk is constructive. But when it's the same old stereotyped nonsense, about black people who don't want to work, can't be educated, have bad habits, or whose culture threatens white values, then what have we gained? My point is that open hostility between races seems more common now than it was when I was growing up. But remember--I'm a white guy of Norwegian ancestry who lives in a suburb that's 98 to 99 percent white (albeit in the most racially diverse neighborhood of that suburb). So I could be wrong.

Recommended Reading:
Salon's Andrew O'Hehir writes about the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction, and how a leading historian believes its failure is the key to our unhappy racial history. And the Rude Pundit compares and contrasts the words of Martin Luther King, Thomas Jefferson, and James Dobson on religion in public life.

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