We are in racially tense times to say the least. We are in an election year where a major political party is about to nominate a presidential candidate (“He who must not be named”) that has suggested that Mexican immigrants are all criminals, has repeatedly retweeted racist Twitter accounts and has offered to pay the legal fees for a guy who sucker-punched a Black man at one of his rallies. In addition, last week saw the graphic video-recorded deaths of Alston Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police. To top it all off, five Dallas police officers were killed after they were ambushed by a Black man. I mourn deeply for the loss of these lives.
Unfortunately, in these racially tense times, I’ve seen a certain attitude from people that troubles me. Whether it’s a post or a meme, my news feed seems to be full of people celebrating the fact that they have cut-off or “unfriended” somebody that has said something deemed racially offensive. It seems to be the latest trend in virtue signaling; whereby people make a statement to increase their street-cred among people that they know will agree. To me, this is a mistake for a number of reasons.
Tribalism is Ineffective
In TV discussions about race-relations, I often hear pundits say things like “we have to start having a real conversation about race.” Even though I’m tired of hearing that cliché, I think it’s mostly true. While we actually talk about racism quite a bit, we are often talking to those who already agree with us. America seems unable to hold on to two truths at the same time; that Black communities experience mistreatment at the hands of police and that these same communities are unfortunately plagued with a disproportionate amount of violence. How do we expect to address these challenges if we aren’t willing to engage those that only want to acknowledge one of those facts? When you cut somebody off, especially if you don’t let them know why, how exactly have you helped your cause? I think lasting change is only possible if we change the hearts and minds of people. Intentionally breaking down lines of communication with other people represents a missed opportunity.
Shaming Can Make Things Worse
In addition to rallying people who already agree with them, I think people publicly unfriend Trump supporters, for example, because they hope to silence others by shaming them. Unfortunately, as I’m sure many psychologists would agree, this is counterproductive because it prevents a diagnosis from being made and can worsen a condition. Whether it’s a conversation with a lawyer, doctor or pastor, people won’t get help if they don’t feel comfortable opening up. We need to be willing to create an environment where people can speak freely. What ever happened to disagreeing vehemently with a person’s statement, while defending their right to say it? I strongly believe that the rise of Donald Trump is due to the fact that some people are tired of being shamed. Trump says what many of them have been thinking, but are afraid to say.
Quitting is the Easy Way Out
I’m very sympathetic to the fact that conversations about race are often frustrating and very painful. When I heard about the recent spate of deaths, I was brought to tears and I didn’t want to go to work. Part of me feels like victims of oppression shouldn’t have to take the high road or make the first step toward reconciliation. Unfortunately, it seems that change won’t happen otherwise. Despite my initial feelings, I was able to push through. I actually ended up having some healthy dialogue with a number of people and I think I am better because of it. If nothing else, I was able to consider a different point of view and refine my own thoughts and feelings in response to objections that were raised. I think every time that happens, I get closer to being able to address opponents more effectively. That type of growth is just not possible if we cut people off.
Please don’t get me wrong; obviously, dialogue won’t work in every situation and you have to pick your battles. When people are disrespectful and show a clear unwillingness to listen, you shouldn’t waste your time. Heck, even Jesus acknowledged that you won’t be able to convince everyone and that sometimes you need to cut your losses:
“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” Matthew 7:6
My only hope is that people try a little harder to reach out to people when it comes to discussions about race and not be so quick to conclude that someone is unworthy of the effort. To be clear, I think it’s unfair to assume that all or even most Trump supporters hate Black people. To my mind, racism is not the same as it was a generation ago. In its previous form, racism was overt discrimination against people of color, based in bigotry. The new racism is the conscious disregard or the lack of concern for policies that have a disparate impact on people of color. Today, apathy is the new racism. We have a right to be angry and frustrated that racism still exists, but we should be encouraged that progress has been made. In order to keep advancing, whether it’s in person or on social media, we have to be willing to be where the racists are.