Can We Talk?

By , January 20, 2010 12:32 am

Harry Reid’s “Negro” comment turned into a political crisis for the Senate Majority Leader. Before coverage of the earthquake in Haiti pushed the controversy from the news media’s attention, Republicans were calling for his resignation. They said it’s the same as when Trent Lott was forced to resign as Senate Majority Leader after speaking at a birthday celebration for then-Sen. Strom Thurmond. Lott said, “We wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years” if Thurmond – who ran on a segregationist ticket – was elected president in 1948. Sorry GOP. It’s not the same.

US President Barack Obama delivers remarks at Let Freedom Ring concert

Besides the political pressure on Reid to resign, his remarks also prompted talk about a national conversation on race. Professor Michael Eric Dyson said Reid’s remarks were a “teachable moment” for Barack Obama and the president needs to deal with the issue of race. Dyson added that Obama “runs from race like a black man runs from a cop.” That’s not an accurate analogy, nor is it particularly helpful when talking about race, but Obama would be an ideal choice begin a national conversation on race. Dr. Boyce Watkins, though, has a few reasons why Obama shouldn’t begin the conversation. One of which, alienating some white voters, Obama himself probably realizes.

It’s fitting that the issue of race comes up around the time we celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday while at the same time looking back at Obama’s (historic, though disappointing to some) first year in office. While his ascendancy to the Oval Office is proof that America has come a long way regarding race, the national hissy-fit we just had over Harry Reid ungracefully speaking the truth is proof we have a long way to go. Former Al Gore Campaign Manager Donna Brazile said this about the Reid gaffe: “We don’t have a common language to discuss issues – especially issues like racism and the sensitivity around discussing race. And because of that, people often trip over themselves.”

Finding that common language would help start a national conversation on race. But what exactly is a “national conversation?” If the United States is going to make an effort to talk about race on both national and local levels, how would that actually happen? Logistically speaking, how would a conversation on a national scale work?

Is it a series of town hall meetings? Would there be a Facebook page and website? (There actually is a website.) Would it be similar to Live Aid where there are concerts in order to promote the issue and get the conversation going? Is it like a campaign to raise money for cancer or other diseases with ribbons, walks and runs? Would there be corporate sponsors with the mainstream media on-board doing stories and interviews?

Then how should it start? Again, Obama might be a logical choice to initiate it. If he does, he should start and steer the conversation. He shouldn’t wait for “teachable moments.” After the series of talks, meetings or events began, he would jump-in the conversation when appropriate. He wouldn’t be front and center all the time. He would have to let it grow and flow organically.

But if it’s going to be a national conversation on race, it has to reflect the racial diversity and the conversations happening in the country. This “conversation” could have been framed between blacks and whites in the 1970′s and maybe even the 1980′s, but it has to be different now. America’s racial make-up is dramatically changing. Between now and 2050, Latinos are projected to go from a projected 15% to almost 25% of the U.S. population. This conversation couldn’t just be about color (black, white, brown), it would have to be about ethnicity and nationality (Latinos, Asians, Arabs), which would lead to other issues (immigration, jobs, terrorism). It would have to be more than just black and white.

It’s not that having a conversation on race isn’t a good idea. It’s just unclear how this national chat would take place. Maybe “conversation” is the wrong word. Maybe it’s a focus. Maybe it’s a movement. Whatever it is or will be, many of us will have to be brave enough to speak the truth about how we feel, have the strength to listen to others, even when we disagree or it’s uncomfortable, and have the will to honestly look at ourselves for who we are individually and as a nation.

All of those, especially the last one, are difficult for many people to do.

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