Why Conversations on Race Usually Fail

We can't just talk about racism during a big national story. We need constant dialogue.

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In college I had a professor who would dismiss class if too many of us had neglected to finish the assigned reading. It would infuriate us as a group of late-teens and early-20-somethings who felt that our very presence should have been rewarded, but I honestly couldn't blame him. His reasoning was sound.

What would be the point of wasting his own time and ours if we were unwilling to come to class prepared for an informed dialogue? He could lecture and we could take detailed notes, but it would always be a much richer experience if an actual conversation took place. That required stretching past our comfort zones and proved useful in broadening the scope of thought for both student and professor. But it worked only if we had all done the reading.

I think about this now, in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin and in the midst of yet another "national conversation on race." It's about time we canceled class until everyone has completed the reading.

It happens after every major news story involving race, and we fail miserably as a nation every time. We now find ourselves asking questions about the lives of young black men -- including the lessons that black parents hand down to their sons about how to move in the world that finds them suspicious -- and, to a lesser degree, about the perceptions we all hold of black men. While that may sound as if we're on the right track, given how much experience we have already had with unarmed black men being gunned down for no reason, it raises the question: Why don't we know the answers yet?

To come back to the metaphor, while we're all in class, everyone seems energetic and attentive, prepared to engage with the curiosity required to master any subject. But as soon as the 50 minutes are up, we all forget what we've learned and fail to do any independent study. The next time we come to class, we have to relearn everything from previous classes before attempting to broach the new stuff.

A national conversation on race is pointless if we have to keep starting over. We won't settle the issue in a two-week span of op-eds, cable-news specials and one-off discussions with our favorite black pundits. Doing so requires constant engagement and active listening on the part of those who have benefited from centuries of racism. This isn't about being able to see the world through the eyes of the oppressed; rather, it's about paying attention when the oppressed tell their own stories and believing them. But privilege means never having to consider that anyone experiences the world differently from you.

It allows Jonah Goldberg to write in the Los Angeles Times that racism currently exists only in "pockets," Ann Coulter to compare calls for justice in Trayvon's death to a lynch mob and Pat Buchanan to refer to this situation as an "exacerbation of and the exploitation of racial conflict." To honestly believe any of these assertions requires cultural blindness and a deep misreading of history, one in which the lives of marginalized people do not exist unless they serve the self-aggrandizing agenda of the controlling group.

When racism exists only in the extreme in the dominant historical narrative and the public imagination, it's not difficult to understand why the conversation becomes stalled. We understand racism as the domain of slaveholders and violent segregationists, cross-burning members of the Ku Klux Klan and ignorant Southerners. Racists possess cold, black hearts and eyes that become engorged with blood and hate at the sight of skin that differs from their own. And they can be defeated only by the good-natured and colorblind folks who believe in one race: human.

Of course, that isn't true in the slightest. Racism doesn't require vicious hatred -- only passive acceptance of an idea of human hierarchy based on mostly arbitrary differences. It is internalized beliefs about the inferiority of one group that in turn grants power and privilege to another. Racism is not a battle of good vs. evil, of individual actors of a heroic or demonic nature determining the worth of people. It is a story of subjugation, exploitation, resistance and the messy complexities that make humanity so intriguing. We would know that if we bothered to study.

In a best-case scenario, Trayvon's death should allow for a moment in which we re-evaluate the way we think racism operates. Racism need not be overt or expressed only in the use of racial epithets. Racist ideas can and do lie in the subconscious, since we are all bombarded with racist images and messaging every day. Racism exists in the fabric of what makes America America, and we make judgments of people based on those ideas without necessarily meaning to do so. And while this affects all of us, whether black, Latino, Asian or other, white Americans are the only group that actually benefits from this system.

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