American race talks get a foreign view

An observant international visitor needs little time to see the true colors of American society. Although I have seen the so-called “melting pot” boil over and burn many a lofty sentiment, an event that I attended at the University of Minnesota was particularly interesting. It was the “One America Conversation” as part of President Clinton’s race initiative.
America indeed looked united as some 25 amiable and well-meaning people took their seats in the Law School’s rare books room, ironically surrounded by an exhibit on Native Americans. Appropriate to the American penchant to talk about “positive” things rather than anything self-critical, the moderator, who had flown in from Washington D.C., first asked the participants to share personal experiences that made them feel positive about the future of race relations. It sounded like massage therapy for deep-rooted cancer.
But then the participants took control of the situation and had a real conversation defining the intricacies of racism. The definitions ranged from simplistic name calling to concepts like psychological subjugation, the evils of the socioeconomic system and abuses of power.
Most participants identified the systematic way that things happen in society which perpetuate racism. They also thought that race relations have been structured from a white perspective. They agreed that the issue was more than just black and white, and that the problems between and among other communities, especially the Native American community were ignored in the current conversations.
Asked to identify one important thing to improve the race relations, one participant rightly quipped, “There is no one important thing.” Another contended that racial identity has always been important in American society, and the predominant white identity usually determines interpersonal relations in this country.
Another participant suggested that President Clinton talk to those people who continue to perpetuate structural racism, such as corporate CEOs and ask them about the opportunities for employees in their companies. Rather than asking the “ordinary citizen” questions, Clinton, it was suggested, should speak about the racism in several institutions such as the federal government, courts and prisons he represents. One person even wondered if the whole conversation was actually a cover for inaction on the president’s part, or at least the manifestation of an implicit understanding that America’s racial problems are only interpersonal, rather than structural.
In a calm and reasoned voice, an African-American woman argued that America needed a structured educational program that is dauntless and subtle without diluting the subject of racism. As the poison itself is injected subtly, the antidote should also be administered with a similar, incremental subtlety. Such an effort, she contended, required creativity, consistency and multiple means, such as TV and newspapers to address the multifarious goals of racial justice in health, education, housing, employment, community organization and so forth.
A man in the group said, “The racial dilemma should not be viewed as an ‘either/or’ problem but as a ‘both/and’ opportunity.” As young children are the real hope for America, schools should embark on field trips to various neighborhoods to eliminate fears and prejudices and strive for integrative education, and the children will challenge and change the system along with its institutions that create the racist mind-set and values.
For me, a non-American, it was a sad but intriguing and exciting experience to see these Americans struggle with the subject of racism. I say sad because all of the precious human energy and potential that could be utilized to build a better life for all has to be squandered on an issue like racism. I say intriguing because I could not comprehend why they were conversing if the national mood was against giving any kind of leverage to the minorities and for maintaining the status quo steadfastly.
Haven’t these conversations always been there as monologues, soliloquies and lamentations? Haven’t they been ignored, snubbed or punished for too long? Why does the president suddenly show an interest in listening? Is he trying to be a little Lincoln in the history textbooks? If not, why does he come all alone to the table without any of his establishment friends? Can we really expect something meaningful from all these conversations?
Despite all the questions, I did feel some excitement about the conversation. After all, people were able to talk, listen, pause, meditate and sob silently. There is still hope, if only America would truly want it.

S.P. Udayakumar, a native of India, is a Fellow at the University’s Institute on Race and Poverty.