Even in intimate discussions among friends, it can be hard to talk honestly and in depth about race and racism.
It’s easy to see why. Irrational sentiments that burble up out of the most primitive recesses of our souls — emotions that are then refracted through personal and collective experience — just don’t translate easily into rational thought.
And once such a thought is formed and expressed, it must then be heard and processed by other minds that are grappling with those same challenges, but from a very different perspective.
A lot can go wrong in that translation from one mind to another. And when you scale that conversation up and try to involve millions in the discussion, the number of ways that things can go wildly wrong increase geometrically, particularly when some in the conversation are trying to manipulate it for economic gain or political ambition.
Those dangers have led many to conclude that in public, it is better to avoid the topic of race altogether than to risk misunderstanding and the inflammation of dangerous passions.
As painful as the Shirley Sherrod case has been, for example, I think the country understands itself better today than it did a week ago.
True, some of what we’ve come to understand is not that pleasant. We’ve seen the power of people such as Andrew Breitbart, who released a harshly distorted video depicting Sherrod as a racist. He almost destroyed her career and her life in the process, yet he still refuses to apologize or take responsibility.
We also saw elements of the American media as well as the Obama administration leap to conclusions on command, like well-trained poodles wearing shock collars, only to sheepishly reverse course once the truth became known.
In the process, though, we also became familiar with the real story of Sherrod, a black woman who was born and raised in the Jim Crow South and who lost her father in a murder supposedly committed by a white neighbor who was never prosecuted.
In the last few days, hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans have watched the 43-minute videotape in which Sherrod relates her struggle to overcome the resentment and distrust toward white people created by that and other experiences.
It’s a great story, honestly told, and I’d bet that most of those who took the time to watch that tape at one point reflected on their own, perhaps uncompleted journey to that same grace that Sherrod has tried to attain.
That is a good thing. America has never been a static concept. To the contrary, it has existed in a permanent state of transformation politically and economically as well as demographically.
Within the past generation, long-term trends such as immigration, civil rights, gay rights and feminism have transformed the face and power structure of the country. As a result, the ability not just to tolerate but to welcome and celebrate those of other backgrounds has become essential to success.
Until a few years ago, many Americans had talked themselves into thinking that we had put questions of race behind us, that we had already emerged into a post-racial society in which such things no longer matter. And while the election of Barack Obama might have been seen as confirmation of that belief, in fact it has done the opposite. It has brought to the surface elements of racism that many had tried to pretend no longer existed.
It is important to keep that statement in perspective. In uncertain times, strong and sincere disagreement about the nation’s course ahead is inevitable. The political standoff that exists in Washington today would exist even if Obama looked and talked like Mitt Romney, because it is based on honest differences of policy and ideology, not race.
But if we’re honest, we must also acknowledge that race has given some of the opposition to Obama a nasty edge and a passion that at times is out of proportion to its inspiration.
These are tough times. It is a lot easier to trust your fellow man when you feel secure in your job and home than when you wake up each morning fearful it all might be snatched away by forces that you cannot comprehend or control. What we’ve seen in the last few days is the danger posed by those who would profit by stoking and feeding those fears, rather than try to calm them.