Black Men Shot, Policemen Shot, What to Do Now?

Whites and nonwhites have an obligation to engage in caring, open dialogue to defuse racial tensions.

By George Yancey Published on July 8, 2016

Friday morning on Facebook I saw a post from a friend who knew someone related to one of the dead police officers in Dallas. If the tragedy there had not been brought home to me before then, it certainly was now. Of course the shooting there has to be placed in context of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I will wait for more evidence to come in, but at this point it seems their deaths well may have been unnecessary.

In the background of all of this there is the racial alienation in which these shootings have taken place. It is too much to hope that we will have no more horrible shootings in the future. But perhaps we can move to reduce or eliminate the racial alienation that’s poisoned our culture. Maybe now with people on all sides of the political and racial arguments feeling such pain, we can begin taking the necessary steps to move towards real racial reconciliation.

The need is great and I am going to be blunt. We will not solve this problem with some imposition of colorblindness that does not fit the lives of people of color. Yelling “All Lives Matter” without any context only deepens the alienation. But the solution is not to be found in the Black Lives Matter movement, either. I see no evidence that BLM promotes honest interracial communication. Instead I see a group that pushes its own racialized agenda and expects compliance instead of communication. This too is a recipe to maintain racial alienation, not eliminate it.

What we need is honest interracial dialogue. Some people argue that we’re already having plenty of interracial communications. They’re mistaken. We have groups of people arguing and talking past each other. There is no real active listening there; no real communication. My Christian faith talks about human depravity. One of its effects is that we tend to think of ourselves and others we like, before we think of those we do not know or like. Only through concerted effort can we have the healthy, honest, interracial dialogue that makes real racial reconciliation possible.

The key is to be ready to listen and not just announce to others what has to be done. Whites and nonwhites are in different positions in this dialogue, so their duties are not identical. (I have written more on this from a Christian perspective.) Both whites and nonwhites, however, are responsible for engaging in caring, open dialogue to defuse racial tensions. Both are guilty of sin when they fail to do so.

Until we learn to listen to others we will never know where they come from. We won’t be able to find the kind of compromises that everyone can live with. Solutions imposed on others will always be resisted. Without honest attempts at mutual understanding, racial alienation will continue. Thus it is all the more imperative that we listen to each other to find solutions we can all agree to.

So let’s put some meat on these theoretical bones. Whites tend to impose a colorblind picture of reality on their conversations with people of color. They often tell us that things aren’t as bad as they once were; that racism is not a big deal. But how can you tell people of color about their own racial experiences? Can you tell me I haven’t experienced “driving while black,” or never been stereotyped as incompetent because of my race? These things are real. I have experienced them. Whites have the right to own their own perspective and experiences, but they need to be very careful telling us that putting an end to racism requires that we adopt their colorblind perspective.

On the other hand, I have seen people of color tell whites what they can and cannot say about racial issues. Whites are told that they cannot bring up black-on-black crime, or the danger a police officer feels, or a number of other perspectives whites may have. How can you ask whites to have an “uncomfortable” conversation when you are not willing to be uncomfortable yourself? Honest conversations have to go both ways. You must honestly hear what others say. Of course you expect they will also hear what you honestly have to say.

If nothing else, this week’s horrors have reinforced the reality that we still have a lot of work to do on racial issues in this country. This problem isn’t going to go away overnight. I do not have space here to go in depth into all it will take to have those conversations. While I have written about this from a Christian perspective, I am also really proud of the academic work I did with Michael Emerson, in a book explaining step by step how such conversations can happen.

Yet I do speak as a Christian; and I have talked about the Christian counterculture that must emerge in our society. In my vision of this counterculture we are multiracial. We do not agree on all things, but we have learned to work out our differences in a manner that honors our Lord. In doing so we produce a gift to the rest of society: a way to move towards racial reconciliation. I hope my dream will soon begin to become reality.

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