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Black and White Identity: Three Opinions on Race
The relationship between persons of African and European ancestry, the black and white races, has been at the core of American identity. This is a relationship that has changed over the years. It also has political significance. A consensus has emerged in the years following the Civil Rights movement that stresses white oppression of black people. In recent histories of our nation, there is a strong sense of black victimhood.
After summarizing the existing consensus on race, this website presents two views which challenge it. The first is an interview with Don Samuels, an African American member of the Minneapolis city council, who is critical of both black militants and white liberals. The second is a statement by a white man, William McGaughey, who agrees with Samuels on his main point but disputes Samuels view that white guilt shapes white peoples racial attitudes.
The political consensus on U.S. race relations in the United States, largely formed during the Civil Rights era, looks at the African American community as a disadvantaged group fighting for political, economic, and social equality. White liberals have been allies in that process. White racists in the southern states and elsewhere, often working in secret, have been opponents.
The story begins with race-based slavery, when human beings were treated as commodities to be bought and sold and exploited for economic gain. Although the U.S. Civil War brought a legal end to slavery, American blacks in the south remained in an inferior class for another hundred years. Racial segregation did not mean separate but equal, as claimed, but social inferiority. Blacks attended inferior schools, sat in the back of the bus, used separate washrooms, and were often denied the right to vote.
The Civil Rights movement changed that. Under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, southern blacks demonstrated nonviolently against racial oppression. They integrated lunch counters and enrolled at once all-white colleges. They held massive marches and rallies. They formed political alliances with sympathetic northerners with whose help landmark legislation was passed. Much of this work took place in the turbulent period of the 1960s.
In subsequent years, black activists have pushed for increased employment, fair-housing policies, improved access to education, and an end to discrimination in the work place. The political establishment has generally supported those ends. Yet, there is a core of resistance in white society driven by racist attitudes. There needs to be continuing work to educate white Americans so we can live up to our promise as a nation that embraces rather than rejects racial diversity.
The above statement is intended to represent the dominant political view on race relations in the United States. The fact is, however, that racial tension remains high. While most whites profess to be free of racial prejudice, blacks often believe they are failing to disclose their true feelings. There is a veneer of politeness which may conceal unabated prejudice. At the same time, the black community is beset by a host of problems of its own making which range from family breakdown to chemical dependency to crime and poor performance in schools. The solution would seem to be not to enforce the current paradigms more rigorously but begin an interracial dialogue which elicits a more honest exchange of views.
Interview with Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels
(This interview with Steve Marsh was originally published in an edited format in the November 2006 issue of Mpls. St.Paul.)
Editor's note: "In a year of violent crime and racial recriminations, north side Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels, fifty-seven, has staked out a contrarian position on most of the hot-button issuesfrom crime to racial profiling to the value of white guilt. In an op-ed piece, he wrote that the north side is suffocating under a tightly woven canopy of complicity between ultra-liberal whites and militant blacks. We asked him to expound on the thesis.
Q: This white liberal/black militant thing is a great conspiracy theory.
A: Its interesting; the history of racism is such that it sets up a lot of guilt in the white community. And sometimes that guilt morphs into resentment and its not dealt with honestly. And it sets up the potential for a lot of anger in the black community. All of us, all black people, to some degree or the other have a little residual anger. And all white people to some degree or the other have some residual guilt. And so those are two human qualities which are designed to lead us to something positive. But in the hands of immature people, or people who are resistant to growth, and will defy even the facts, they become very destructive qualities.
In terms of the black community, black people who are angryas we all are to some degreeand are committed to a kind of more immature and anti-growth orientation in the world, they will look at the counter, which is white guilt, and say, Im going to use my anger at historic injustices to manipulate that guilt. And Im going to use it within the black community to create a movement that I can lead. Im going to tap into that anger at the white shame, and Im going to manipulate it. So that black leader is tapping into the black anger and white shame as a two-pronged kind of strategy. On the white side, you have this white person who is not necessarily looking for change, but is looking to alleviate their guilt. Thats their main motivation. So theyre thinking, How can I alleviate my guilt? I just feel so bad about this situation.
I dont know if you read in my letter to the editor about this guy Cap Catch whos running for DFL. He got beat up canvassing on the North Side. He was on the news saying that he wasnt going to press charges or encourage the cops to find the kids because hes hoping that they will realize the trouble theyve done by just watching him with his patch on his nose and see it as an opportunity to change their ways rather than getting in with the laws and all that kind of stuff. Now to me, thats white liberal bullshit. OK. This person is not strategically looking to see how were going to change the minds of these hard-core young men. As a parent would. What am I going to do about this stupid son I have? Theyre like, Well, you know, they cant do any better. Im so guilty I cant hold them accountable. Im just a nice guy, I wouldnt do anything to hurt these already hurt people. So let them destroy the world because we deserve it.
Whatever. Its nasty and lazy. Hes a great dance partner for the angry black leader. They sit in a room and he goes, Beat me, please beat me. And hell go, Yeah, Ill beat you. Theyre going nowhere. Theyre playing this ancient game, and they are having a wonderful time together but they are leading us down a path of destruction.
Q: So do you feel patronized by Nick Coleman?
A: Oh, absolutely. Yeah! I mean, when
I talk to people here, weve been so silenced by the militant component
of the community which has defined militancy as racial sophistication. And anybody
who is doing anything less radical or destructive is a sell-out. And any white
person who is demanding accountability on the other side is a racist. So between
these two feared labels of Uncle Tom and Racist they
got us shut up.
Q: So do you think that white liberalism
is helpful or harmful at this point?
A: Its harmful. Its particularly harmful because the black community is actually the opposite of [liberal thinkers like Coleman]. The black community, within its own confines, is much less liberal, much less democratic than the white community. We dont raise our children democratically, as white people do. Our churches are certainly not run as democratically as white peoples churches are. I can assure you that Reverend McAffees church is run much more autocratically than Nick Colemans church, if he goes to one. You dont question what the pastor says.
So heres the paradox: you have the white liberal coming along interfacing with the leader of a community that is autocratically run, and its a joke. Its a joke! Theres not a common thread of culture. Dont you ever believe that. This guy keeps control of his group and he dictates what happens there. And then you have this liberal guy over here, Well, nobody should be paid anything to anybody. Oh, it will drive you crazy, the inconsistencies of this. And Im not saying that autocratic style is not come by honestly. Its firmly grounded in southern social politics and the southern way of life. You call everybody sir. And in the north, many black families will not allow children not to address an adult as sir. You never question your pastor. And this school teacher is like god. Those things dont happen in the white community! In the black community, especially among poor blacks, thats the way it is.
So Nick Colemans way in the world is totally antithetical to the internal politics of the black community. But its totally consistent with the black communitys relationship with the white community in the last thirty years: Black community demands its rights in the political sphere from the white community. Demands accountability. Openness. Equality. But the irony of the whole thing is its not yet happening in the community!"
Not White Guilt but Fear
by William McGaughey
Don Samuels is an African-American man who represents an area with a large part of the citys African-American population on the Minneapolis City Council. He has, however, staked out what an editor of Mpls. St. Paul Magazine called a contrarian position on most of the hot-button issues, especially with regards to race.
Samuels passion is to reduce the level of violence in north Minneapolis. A former block club leader in one of the citys most dangerous neighborhoods, he came to prominence in the summer of 2002 in arguing that blacks should take responsibility for their crime problem and not simply blame whites. He has established a nonprofit organization called Peace Foundation to promote his vision of racial harmony.
When the Minneapolis mayor and other city leaders held a press conference on Broadway in the late summer to announce a new anti-gang initiative, some black leaders, notably Rev. Jerry McAfee of New Salem Baptist Church, condemned the program as a new kind of racial profiling. Mayor R.T. Rybak hastily left the meeting when the criticism began. Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman described this as an act of political cowardice. Samuels, the Mayors ally in the anti-gang initiative, published a rebuttal to Colemans position as a counterpoint feature in the Star Tribune.
Samuels wrote in his article that north Minneapolis was suffocating under a tightly woven canopy of complicity between ultra-liberal whites and militant blacks. Mpls St. Paul magazine published an interview with Don Samuels in its November 2006 issue. Reporter Steve Marsh then asked Samuels to expand upon his thesis that an unhealthy alliance between white liberals and black militants was working to undermine community life in north Minneapolis.
Don Samuels replied: The history of racism is such that it sets up a lot of guilt in the white community. And sometimes that guilt morphs into resentment and its not dealt with honestly. And it sets up the potential for a lot of anger in the black community. All of us, all black people, to some degree or the other have a little residual anger. And all white people to some degree or the other have some residual guilt. And so those are two human qualities which are designed to lead us to something positive. But in the hands of immature people, or people who are resistant to growth, and will defy even the facts, they become very destructive qualities.
In the interview, Don Samuels criticized a DFL political candidate named Michael Katch who was physically assaulted by some young black men while campaigning in north Minneapolis. He was on the news saying that he wasnt going to press charges or encourage the cops to find the kids because hes hoping that they will realize the trouble theyve done by just watching him with his patch on his nose and see it as an opportunity to change their ways, said Samuels. Now to me, thats white liberal bullshit. OK. This person is not strategically looking to see how were going to change the minds of these hard-core young men.
With regards to Nick Colemans column Samuels said: When I talk to people here, weve been so silenced by the militant component of the community which has defined militancy as racial sophistication. And anybody who is doing anything less radical or destructive is a sell-out. And any white person who is demanding accountability on the other side is a racist. So between these two feared labels of Uncle Tom and Racist they got us shut up.
As his constituent, I have had my differences with Don Samuels. I have objected to his tendency to blame rental-property owners, convenience-store owners, and other business people for tolerating crime while, as an elected official, failing to hold himself, the police, and city government fully accountable for failures in this area. On the other hand, I share Samuels priority in wanting to reduce violent crime in Minneapolis. In this instance, I also applaud Samuels for his fresh thinking on race relations.
I think that Samuels interview opens up the possibility of a real interracial dialogue on race relations that is sorely needed in the Twin Cities. From a white racial perspective, I agree with Samuels identification of white liberals and black militants as perverse dance partners. I also believe that white passivity in the face of black crime and black militancy is a part of the problem. Perhaps even more than blacks, the white community could solve the race problem if it had the courage to do so. This is a long-festering illness that that can only be cured by changing the mode of treatment.
I do, however, differ with Samuels on one point: white guilt. Samuels supposes that guilt over slavery, Jim Crow practices in the south, racial lynchings, or other historic practices by which blacks were abused in a largely white society are at the root of white attitudes about race. I disagree. I dont feel any racial guilt. I recently asked a friend of mine, a white man, whether he felt guilty about how whites had treated blacks. He, too, denied having any sense of racial guilt.
It may be that he and I have an inadequate social-political awareness, but the fact is that racial guilt is not part of our thinking. I doubt if too many other white Americans - other than people who write on this subject for newspapers like the Star Tribune - are consumed by racial guilt. This is a concept more heavily promoted than rooted in fact.
To my way of thinking, it is absurd that white Americans should continue to feel guilty about race-based slavery in America that was abolished in the 1860s. Should white people, 140 years later, denigrate themselves for practices that took place so many years ago? Dont we as a race receive some credit for those white Union soldiers who died in the U.S. Civil War and whose self-sacrifice served to abolish slavery?
And why should Minnesotans feel a sense of guilt over the degrading racial policies that existed in the southern states prior to the 1960s? Neither we nor our regional ancestors engaged in those practices. And dont we Minnesotans receive any credit for Hubert Humphreys political leadership in ending segregationist practices? This collective guilt is something beyond comprehension. Why only us?
Are we whites bogged down in some kind of racial Original Sin which will never go away no matter how many years have elapsed since the abusive practices took place? How gullible white people must be to buy into that kind of theory! I suspect, however, that not many whites do buy the theory. It is, instead, a highly vocal white minority, concentrated in journalism, politics, religion, and education, who are telling white people how they do or are supposed to think in regard to race. Such is their control of the societys opinion-making process that contrary opinions are seldom heard. The contrarian is either dismissed as a racist or is ignored.
Yet, white passivity in the face of black political militancy and black crime is undeniable. If not by guilt over their own racist past, white people are motivated by some other factor to capitulate when black people become angry or violent. I would propose an alternative explanation. Where Don Samuels sees white guilt as the driver of white passivity, I see this: white fear of black violence.
You dont have to go back to the Civil War to find root causes of this attitude. Go back to the race riot in Detroit in 1942. Go back to the urban riots that took place in Watts, again in Detroit, and also in north Minneapolis in 1967. Rioting blacks set fire to large sections of our nations major cities. Whites lived in fear of what would come next.
When Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in the spring of 1968, black people rioted in several cities across the United States. However, a political twist was added. It was assumed that the rioting took place for a just reason: black despair over the murder of Dr. King, the apostle of nonviolence. Presumably, since white society had thumbed its nose at Martin Luther Kings nonviolent approach by having him murdered, blacks were justified in practicing the violent alternative. It was understandable that they would want to burn down our major cities.
Some tellers of recent history cite Robert Kennedys compassionate talk to a black audience in Indianapolis shortly after Dr. Kings assassination. This, they say, was the reason that Indianapolis was spared the arson and looting experienced in other cities. Presumably, white society as a whole might be spared of black violence if it showed similar compassion.
On the other hand, there was another large northern city which was also largely (but not completely) spared of violence after the King assassination: the city of Chicago. When the rioting began, Mayor Richard Daley sent the Chicago police out to quell the violence with an order of shoot to kill. Like Robert Kennedys speech, this statement, too, had the desired effect.
In the 19th century, white Americans would have known how to deal with such violence. They would unhesitatingly have adopted ashoot to kill policy. The government would have moved in quickly to suppress public disorder, countering individual acts of violence with overwhelming force.
All this changed in the 1960s due to what I would call the Bull Connor effect. Bull Connor was the public-safety commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama, during the Civil Rights years. When blacks in the south demonstrated against white-imposed segregation, he and his officers kept black crowds at bay with police attack dogs and water hoses. Northerners, looking at pictures of this event in newspapers or on television, were shocked at the brutality of southern police in the face of peaceful protest.
The idea then took root that any police repression of black people was brutal and unjustified. Police brutality rather than black violence or potential violence became the issue. Following the 1960s, then, the solution to black violence had to be something other than strong police action. No elected official would risk being called a racist like Bull Connor. The racially sensitized voters would punish him at the polls.
In turn, the police knew that tough law enforcement might not be supported by their political superiors. Some became cynical. This meant that white people living in communities with significant numbers of blacks could not expect the police to keep their neighborhoods safe. It was an additional reason for them to fear black violence.
The main effect was to drive white people out of the inner city to the suburbs. The north had its own kind of racial segregation, driven by white fear of black violence. The core of many large cities was inhabited by black people. Suburban whites lived in the surrounding area.
In the inner city, black families torn apart by welfare policies produced children in single-parent households. Some of these children sought companionship and identity in violent gangs. The devastated urban economy provided an opportunity for drug traffickers. With the drug trade came more violence. The killings continued. Even after the era of race riots had ended, white Americans saw black people as essentially violent. The fear of black violence remained a factor in white peoples thinking.
White passivity is a product of this fear. In recent years, the fear has centered on correct political speech. Initially the idea might have been that if white people said anything harsh or unkind about blacks, the blacks might riot. In effect, white people were whispering to each other: Dont say anything that might set off the blacks. Keep your thoughts to yourself. If a white said the least thing negative about blacks, it was assumed that black people might fly off in a rage and perhaps use violence. Intimidated by this thought and reinforced by constant reminders from other whites, most whites kept silent. It was the racially smart thing to do.
In the period after the riotous 60s, the speech aspect became increasingly important. White people had to be extremely careful what they said around blacks. Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight boxer, refocused thought on terminology when he insisted on being addressed by this name rather than be called Cassius Clay. The slightest hint of careless language betrayed potential racism; and blacks quickly took offense. Such matters were taken very, very seriously by the white power structure. Racial jokes were no longer OK. If you told one of these at work, you were apt to be fired. The only acceptable relationship with blacks was to speak and act in a totally respectful way. From a white perspective, the racial gun was always at ones head.
This was the worst part. America, the land of freedom, was exchanging its freedom for bondage to certain required thoughts. It was exchanging freedom of speech and thought for demonization of those who departed from the prevailing political views. In effect, our nation had acquired a state religion. To be a racial "bigot"was to incur the contempt of polite society. He or she would be treated like a heretic needing to be punished.
A new nastiness entered public life. Double standards, depending upon one's gender or race, received official sanction. Extreme intolerance in the name of tolerance, rigid prejudice in the name of ending prejudice, were advocated without a hint of irony. The racial zealots enforcing"politically correct" thought by all means necessary became the witch hunters of our time. Orwellian society had arrived.
To understand the new situation, one should recognize the political changes that took place in the 1960s. Previously, most American blacks had voted for Republicans. White southerners voted for the Democrats. As the Civil Rights movement progressed during the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, the partisan alignment was reversed. Blacks, whose identities were shaped by the Civil Rights movement, now became avid Democrats while white southerners supported the Republicans. The Democrats generally controlled the federal government until the 1980s when Ronald Reagan created a Republican majority. So it was when the Democrats were in control, especially under Lyndon Johnson, that the critical decisions were made nationally about race.
In the period since the 1960s, white fear of black violence subsided somewhat. Instead of whispering Be careful what you say lest the blacks riot, you had Democrats saying to each other: Be careful what you say lest the blacks stop voting for Democrats. Democrats had to toe a fairly strict party line to keep the monolithic black vote intact. They had to support fair housing and affirmative action. They had to voice the opinion that blacks were victims of white racial discrimination: this was the cause of all their ills. Anyone who deviated from this line was not a good Democrat but was instead potentially racist and therefore deserving of condemnation from the entire society.
If Democrats were one interest group supporting this racial order, lawyers were another. The Democrats had passed certain laws in the 1960s prohibiting racial discrimination. Courting the black vote, the Johnson and Nixon administrations had created federal agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which, in the name of the public, could bring discrimination cases against private parties. Private attorneys could sue employers who discriminated against blacks in their hiring practices or landlords thought guilty of racial discrimination. They could also sue employers who permitted their employees to tell off-color racial (or gender) jokes or create a racially (or sexually) hostile environment. There was strong legal pressure to toe the correct racial line. It was a pressure exerted only against whites.
Private employers were thus brought into the mix of racial enforcing agents. Even if the fear of black violence had waned, whites had to fear that the so-called white power structure would punish them if they said or did the wrong thing regarding race. Antipathy to white racism was like a civic religion that brooked no heresy. Democrat and Republican alike paid lip service to this religion which none dared criticize.
But because people recognized that the Democrats were more heavily invested in the anti-racist campaign, many white voters without admitting it were more inclined to vote Republican, especially in the south. Whatever their economic interests, they voted for the Republican candidates who were loathed by the vocal minorities. The leaders of big business, presumably forced to go with the flow of racial justice, found it convenient to throw their white subordinates to the dogs who belonged to unions or were in middle management. Thats our situation today.
It should also be mentioned that the opinion- and policy-setting institutions in U.S. society were controlled by the true believers in racial justice whose values were formed in the 1960s. Young men and women educated during this period today hold positions of influence in the judiciary, education, journalism, and entertainment. For them and others, it is axiomatic that the southern segregationist society was evil at its core and the Civil Rights movement was purely good.
Such persons shape and control the racial message that goes out to the public. A deviation from this consistent message is treated in one of two ways: Either the deviant one is demonized as a racist or he is ignored. Or maybe it is a process of ignoring racial dissent from the little people but demonizing anyone who manages to be heard. In any event, the societys racial consensus remains iron-clad. Silence is the prime enforcer of the consensus. Settled opinion on racial matters cannot be disturbed. Those who control the big-media megaphone make sure of that.
In summary, I think it naive to assume that white people independently come to their feelings on race from a standpoint of white racial guilt. The more realistic view is that whites are motivated to remain silent or to mask their true thoughts by feelings of fear. For the most part, whites today have other whites to fear more than they do blacks. They must fear white liberal journalists who will portray them in unflattering ways if they buck the prevailing racial consensus, or employers who will fire them to avoid expensive lawsuits for discrimination, or church leaders who will shame them before their peers in a congregation. Ordinary people sense that something is wrong with their society but can do little about it.
From a historical standpoint, it was originally the fear of black violence that produced the consensus of opinion that we have today. it was the spectacle of blacks burning down cities and the image of Bull Connor that prevented the police from doing much about the problem. If Martin Luther King was the good cop who preached and practiced nonviolence, there were also during those times plenty of bad cops, such as the Black Panthers, whose violent image supplied the required intimidating effect. Would white America have listened to Martin Luther King had not his bad cop friends been there to apply a simultaneous pressure for change? What if the urban blacks had never rioted? History might have been different.
The miracle is that today, in 2006, the racial consensus of the past fifty years has started to change. The election of Don Samuels to the Minneapolis city council is one sign of that change. So is black-owned Insight News endorsement of two white Republicans, Alan Shilepsky and Jim Lilly, to seats in the state legislature representing predominantly black areas of Minneapolis. Since whites in this liberal city are politically marginalized in regards to race, it takes black leadership to challenge the reigning consensus.
The motive of these leaders, I feel sure, is a recognition that current policies have failed the black community. Black neighborhoods beset by violence, broken families, chemical dependency, and lack of jobs are intolerable situations that demand urgent attention. From a white perspective, I would hope that the next step would be an end to the politics of racial antagonism in which whites are endlessly stigmatized and a recognition that a solution to the communitys pressing economic and social problems will require support from all persons of good will.
An African American woman, who is the mother of five children, became angry when she read my comments about white fear of black violence. Whites, she said, had also engaged in violent acts against blacks. Her children who attended predominantly white schools were often harassed by their fellow students and called racial names. My article might encourage such behavior.
Human behavior in such things will be what it will be. I do believe, however, that the current ideological atmosphere encourages white resentment of blacks. Government was wrong to have gone into the business of eradicating racism because racism is a mental attitude and the human mind is essentially free. The more the authorities apply penalties for incorrect social or political thinking, the more strongly people will cling to what they know to be true.
If white people feel they are being forced to accept racial party lines that conflict with their own experience, they will take it out on black people. The best solution to problems of racial misunderstanding is free speech. Let persons of differing opinions and experiences talk with each other, not to reach a preconceived conclusion but to state what they truly believe while listening to the other persons point of view.
Therefore, we need a real dialogue on race in America in which all persons, regardless of belief, are respected and listened to. That, not government pressures or preaching, will lead to true understanding and, in turn, to racial reconciliation.
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