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Business Casual: Are We There Yet?

 

It seems to me there was a period of hopeful naiveté back in the ’70s when a lot of good, optimistic people thought we were getting close to the point of “solving” the race and racism problem once and for all. We were just one more heartfelt discussion, one more sensitivity session or one more round of good-intentions-turned-into-action away from a solution.

Briefly, it seemed it might just be a matter of raising everyone’s consciousness then letting time take care of the rest.

Simplistic? Of course. Well-intentioned? Yes. Wrong? So it would seem.

More than 20 years ago, when I was on the staff at Atlanta magazine, several of us worked on a huge project to interview 100 Atlantans on the topic of race – people of all ages and backgrounds, with opinions all over the place. One of the common themes among the youngest of those we interviewed was that they were not racists themselves, but they had grandparents who were. I recall wondering if it was simply a matter of waiting for the aging racists to depart the scene. But apparently not.

Among the epiphanies, large and small, prompted by the Trayvon Martin verdict and even to some extent the Paula Deen flap was the realization for many that there has been no solution. Some progress, yes, but nothing to indicate the race issue can be crossed off the list.

Among those who profess themselves “tired of hearing about” the Trayvon Martin case, you sense a weariness, a “Not that again, please” response – as though the fact of wishing racism away should be enough. Sadly, it isn’t. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that people’s reactions to that verdict break down strictly along the lines of whether they believe the young man would still be alive if his skin had been white. If you believe that he would, you likely see the verdict as wrong; if you believe otherwise, you see the verdict as a righteous one.

Even given the factors of poor prosecution effort, allowable evidence, the rules the jury was operating under and the limits of the law, individuals’ reactions to the verdict track their views on race.

In thinking of the arc of race relations, from the white-lady-of-a-certain-age perspective, which is the only one I am qualified to invoke, it seems there was a time when it felt sufficient to simply say to yourself and anyone else who inquired, “I am not a racist,” meaning you did not dislike people of color or actively discriminate against them. Then there came a time where white people said, “Sure, come to my party. Live in my neighborhood. Work in my office. Be like me.”

This was likely the period when someone decided that just uttering, “Some of my best friends are black” would absolve them of any further responsibility.

But then there came the realization that maybe the folks seeking justice and basic civil rights didn’t necessarily want to be like white people. They wanted to be themselves – but with a guarantee of those rights. They liked their own party.

This is the part where it got harder – where you had to consider things like the implications of institutionalized racism and its effects – and I think a lot of people just got discouraged. I understand discouragement.

A few days after the Martin verdict, a friend of mine was saying that we need to have a national conversation on race. I told him I wasn’t so sure – it didn’t seem that either side was of a mind to hear what the other had to say. I’m not sure what I think the next step needs to be.

But, fortunately, it isn’t just up to me. There are wiser people who are way ahead of me. One of them is my congressman, Rep. John Lewis.

At a ceremony in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, Lewis – one of the architects of the march – had just the right words of healing and encouragement.

“Those of us who are committed to the cause of justice need to pace ourselves because our struggle does not last for one day, one week or one year, but it is the struggle of a lifetime and each generation must do its part. … Let’s continue the work that has already begun to build a beloved community.”

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