Commentary Magazine


Debating Race in America

Mike Gallagher is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host who has had me on his program many times in the past. Sometimes we agree, and sometimes not. But in my experience Gallagher, a fine and intelligent man, is willing to give me my say and explore our differences of opinion. That occurred earlier this week, when he had me on to discuss my post “Being Black in America,” which was written in the aftermath of the racist comments by Cliven Bundy and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, comments we learned about within a matter of days. 

I told Gallagher that America has made tremendous strides on race and that there are pernicious forces on the left who recklessly ascribe racism to those with whom we disagree. At the same time, racism–including subtle forms of racism–still exists, probably more than many of us imagine. Moreover, many young black males today are viewed with suspicion, in some cases for reasons that may be understandable but are still unfortunate. What if you’re a law-abiding young African American and yet because of your race there’s a cloud of suspicion over you? How would you feel?

Mr. Gallagher conceded there’s merit to the last point, but what troubled him is that by his lights I am (inadvertently) perpetuating a myth, which is that America is deeply racist; that my COMMENTARY post is saying that Sterling is “a pretty good representative of how all whites feel”; and that by suggesting that someone like Sterling “is kind of the way this culture is” I’m setting back race relations by decades. In addition, Gallagher asserted that I was taking these two “overblown” cases and ascribing far too much importance into them. Needless to say, I believe Gallagher overstated my views by a considerable degree.

In any event, near the end of our conversation Gallagher, playing off my statement that it’s worth re-thinking just a bit what it must feel like to be black in America today, challenged me (twice) to write a column on what it feels like to be white in America today. He spoke with passion about his liberal son, who is no racist but who graduated from college saying, “Black people hate me because I’m white.” Mr. Gallagher went on to say this:

We are supposed to be guilty.  We are supposed to feel shame over what people did 50 or 100 or 200 years ago that we had nothing to do with. And we are constantly accused of having a hatred in our heart that we don’t have.

Which brings me to my main observation. Our exchange is an illustration of two people–in this case two conservatives–looking at the same events and reacting in very different ways. I interpreted events through one prism, Gallagher through another. In thinking things through I became somewhat less confident in my previous assimilation of things; he became somewhat more certain (or at least emphatic) that his approach was the right one. In the aftermath of the comments by Bundy and Sterling, I was thinking of racism as it applies to African Americans; he wanted to bring the focus back to racism directed against whites. Here’s the thing, though: We might both have valid points but for a host of reasons–life experiences, disposition and temperament, the people we interact with and who influence our thinking, et cetera–be drawn to one rather than the other.

In their book The Mystery of God, the theologians Steven D. Boyer and Christopher A. Hall describe what they call the more sophisticated proponents of postmodernism–those who are very explicitly not advocating a wholesale abandonment of truth. “Instead,” Boyer and Hall write,

they are inviting us to recognize that our knowledge of the truth is always influenced by who we are as finite, fallen creatures. The truth that we know is never “absolute” because we ourselves are not absolute. For human persons who are both finite and fallen, no single truth claim, nor set of truth claims, can ever capture the whole truth, completely undistorted and undiluted, with nothing whatsoever falling through the cracks. Our knowledge is always partial, always in need of correction or refinement.

Every one of us would probably do better to bear these words in mind, and to see how they apply not only to others but also to us.

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