By George Ball
This article is a follow on to “The GOP Feebly Enabling A Corrosive Acid to Drip From the Top Down,” https://www.insidernj.com/gop-ffebly-enabling-corrosive-acid-drip-top-down/ , which included a call for Biden and Trump supporters to start listening to each other.
Here, we seek to facilitate that process using the issue of race.
Why? Because race is both a root cause of our divisive partisanship as voters and a possible pathway to reconciliation. But only if we are willing to do the hard work that actual reconciliation demands; that is, to step away from ourselves, get past platitudes, and look from the outside into another person’s reality that we have not yet considered but need to.
The reasons why voters divide on race into partisan camps are many and complex. No one insight will match every, or perhaps even most, situations.
But let’s face it. We did not get here through molecular chemistry. The simple fact is that environmental, foreign, economic, criminal justice, tax, and healthcare policies (to name a few) are incredibly complex. While some people have authentic expertise in them, most of us don’t. And though politicians may often be empty, they are rarely stupid.
What wins elections is what resonates with voters. Policies on complex issues don’t resonate. So it should come as no surprise that many of Biden’s policy proposals are opaque, amorphous, and unlikely to be enacted, while – once you work through his hollow rhetoric – Trump’s appear to be nonexistent.
What each of these men were really running on two weeks ago was not policy. It was a vision of America and what we are as a Americans.
Trump’s Make America Great Again embraced the notion that we need to correct decades of being taken advantage of by bad actors – both foreign and domestic. Biden’s stated battle for the soul of America spoke to a nation that aspires to be a more perfect union, while actually rigging the deck to perpetuate social and economic inequalities. An important component of both of these visions – directly, for Biden, and indirectly, for Trump – is race.
And on that score, it is important to distinguish between individuals and the larger society. Both men agree that there are racist individuals. Where they diverge is on America writ large. Embedded in Biden’s vision is the notion that America is a racist country but is good enough to overcome it. Trump says America is not a racist country at all.
What do those who support one those views or the other point to in support of their perceptions? Not those at the extremes of either party, but rather the rational right and rational left. Meaning people of good will who have experienced America differently.
The Rational Right
The rational right point to busing, affirmative action, minority set asides in government contracting, anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, and other indicia of the deinstitutionalization of racism in our society. That America’s election of a black President (twice), black Senators, black members of Congress, black Mayors, Judges, Sheriffs and police officers is proof that minorities have meaningful access to the levers of power. That high crime rates among black communities are an expected outcome of a shattered family structure in which 70% of children are born to single parent households. That whites are now being demonized as racist on the basis of things over which they neither control (“white privilege”) nor believe (“unconscious bias”). That anyone who questions this demonization is pilloried. That America is debasing our Founding Fathers and the American Experiment by characterizing it as being built on the original sin of slavery. And that whites are eventually going to be forced to pay reparations for slavery to people who were not slaves as they struggle to raise their own families in what has always been a very unforgiving economy.
The Rational Left
The rational left look to disproportionality in unemployment, wages, wealth, healthcare, and rates of prosecution and incarceration. They understand George Floyd as bringing home a reality that the rest of society has ignored. They note the hypocrisy of men like Washington and Jefferson, who fought for freedom while owning slaves. They point out that because many statutes honoring Confederate leaders were not built until decades after the Civil War had ended, they were not really erected as history, but rather as symbols in support of Jim Crow. And after acknowledging the disintegration of the black family unit, they ask the really hard question. They ask “why?” Because there is nothing in African Americans’ DNA that accounts for this. Rather, the rational left suggests, the answer is pervasive (i.e., “systemic”) racism.
Witnessing Both Sides of these Realities
Let’s take this down to where we live. While everyone knows that affirmative action has a cost, not everyone has experienced it. I have. I am a lawyer, and lawyers know that being a United States District Court Judge is a pinnacle of the legal profession. These are incredibly difficult positions to attain. Yet I know colleagues who did not need to seek them. They were asked to be on the bench. To meet notions of diversity. In a Fortune 500 company that I worked in my boss was told by the Law Department to lay me off because they had already laid off two people of color and needed someone who was white (he refused). In a government agency where I served I was asked to recommend a candidate whose stated goals were inconsistent with the agency’s mission because he was black, and it was hard to attract qualified minorities.
As a person who lives in this country, I have also seen overt discrimination. I watched a carload of white adolescents try to hit a well-dressed black man on 5th Avenue in New York City with an open car door, as they yelled “n—-er.” I have heard black judges – men and women whom I know, have worked with, and trust – talk about how they have to think about what to wear when they drive their own cars, so as to not get randomly pulled over. I have seen white security guards scrutinize and question black attorneys trying to enter courthouses as I walk by unquestioned. I, too, have watched the George Floyd encounter.
And I sat silently as two thuggish, paunchy white males repeatedly wish an elderly, black women a happy Martin Luther King Day on the train. Standing in front of her. Invading her space. Following her as she walked down that aisle between rows of seats. Failing to help her is one of the regrets of my life. Not because I am such a good person. And not because she was black. But because I have lived enough to know what it feels like to be helped by a person when you really need it. And she needed it.
Food for Thought
Certainly, there is much room to improve race relations in this country. Certainly, we need to do so. But to solve a problem we need to correctly identify it. If racism is facilitated by the institutions of society (e.g., the Courts, the Legislatures, and our laws) then it is institutionalized. That suggests one set of solutions. But if it is “simply” pervasive; that is, if it lives in the hearts of too many of us, as individuals, then a different (much harder) set of solutions are implicated. Because this is not North Korea. At its core, freedom is the right of each of us to think, to opine, and even to be wrong. Since systemic – as opposed to institutional – racism describes those individual decisions, it can only be solved on an individual level. This need not take forever and, indeed, has already taken too long. But individuals won’t change how they think unless they are persuaded to do so.
And anyone who has tried to persuade people of anything knows that dictates don’t work. The means used to persuade have to be persuasive. Making those means as important as the end.
We will not persuade people to delegitimize racism by evaluating the past through the prism of the present. The fact is that while a number of our Founding Fathers were slaveholders, the system of government that they brought forth in 1789 (with the passage of the Constitution) was a giant, enduring and critically important step toward freedom in a world then ruled by monarchs and despots.
Nor will we get there by contorting our own history. The fact is that Jim Crow – a clear expression of institutional racism – is gone, that affirmative action has avoided a stark ghettoization of the “other” that we see the North African population of France and refugee communities in many European countries endure, and that we are one of few societies around the world which has not elected members of political parties with overtly racist platforms.
And going down one level, I have seen people who might actually kill each other if they met in their home countries sit next to each on the subway, or in a bus. So have you.
This does not make our glass full. But it is full enough to make us one of the least racist societies on the planet. Don’t take my work for it. Look at China (Uighers), India (non-Hindus), Saudi Arabia (non-Moslems), Myanamar (the Rohingya), Rwanda (Hutu and Tutsi), and many, many others.
So yes, we must do better. Without ignoring what we have already accomplished.
The Bottom Line
You do not have to be a moron to share Trump’s vision of America, or an antifa cancel culture socialist to support Biden’s. There are millions of well- meaning people with different life experiences that inform their views. We can agree to disagree without questioning each other’s humanity. And many of us are willing to listen so long as they, too, are heard. Whether you do so is a matter of individual choice about how you want to live and what you want this country to be. No group or movement can make that decision for you. In America, we are that movement. All 330,000,000 million of us. And we always have been.
So I am asking you to reach an individual decision. To be willing to speak, but also listen, and to allow for the possibility that others may in good faith see things differently than you do.
And I am asking you to do one more thing. A thing that I did not do. If you see a person being harassed on a train or elsewhere – black or white, enduring discrimination or reverse discrimination – help them. Quietly or noisily. In the moment. When it matters.
If most of us do that, at least two things can happen. A lot fewer of us will feel victimized. And we will begin connecting as people in a way that may well, over time, help take race out of our political divide.