In the mid 90’s I was enjoying teaching at a southern liberal arts college that’s a few miles from where the first Woolworths food counter was desegrated as a result of carefully planned, courageous sit-ins by North Carolina A&T students.
A few college leaders decided it was time for us to address underlying racial problems between people both on and off campus. As part of the process “diversity training” required everyone to begin by admitting they were racist. I vividly remember that being a non-starter for some of my southern white colleagues.
Fast forward to this week and former President Carter’s assertion that Congressman Wilson’s “You lie” midway through President Obama’s health care speech was racist in nature. The right immediately countered that Wilson’s outburst and related Republican anger is explained solely by policy differences.
I wonder what lead diversity training experts to require diversity training participants to begin by publicly confessing racism. I suspect the more racist a person is the less inclined they are to acknowledge it. So as the right’s protests against Carter’s allegations grow more vehement, the more correct I think he is. Put differently, thou protest too stridently.
So which way out of this very human, racism-denial dynamic? What if we agree to talk about race and class differences through more subtle, nuanced starting points like “I have preconceived notions of other groups many which are probably inaccurate.” Or “I overgeneralize too much based upon my own limited life experience.” Or “I assume negative things about some groups of people too quickly.”
In the end, I agree with Carter that a relatively small minority of whites don’t think an African-American is qualified to be President of the United States, and consequently, they question President Obama’s legitimacy.
More importantly, I’m deferring to thoughtful African-American citizens making the same argument based upon all numerous Hitler comparisons from a few weeks ago, the “How dare Obama give a ‘back-to-school’speech to my kids” hysteria, and the repeated condemnations of socialism and the related questioning of Obama’s birth certificate.
I suspect that for maybe ten percent of whites the fact that an African-American convincingly was elected to the highest political position in the land is disorienting and disturbing.
I don’t expect former President Carter’s statement or these words to convince anyone that racism is a contributing factor to these recent events. In fact, I expect Congressman Wilson, the gun-toting Hitler holding sign people, the conservative parents who threatened to pull their children from school, and more radical elements of the right wing to continue to insist that they don’t have any racist bones in their bodies.