Although there are doubtless a significant number of whites who are finally willing to admit that white supremacy is an inextricable part of American history, their influence is dwarfed by the clout of conservative forces that are still addicted to the exploitation of racial resentment for political gain. A key part of their strategy is, of course, to ignore the extent to which racist public policies — developed by politicians like Byrd during slavery and segregation and their aftermath — explain the sorry condition of so many blacks even today.
This information is easily available, but many whites prefer not to know it. They’d rather not delve into the history that explains why so many blacks are still herded into impoverished, hypersegregated neighborhoods, or why they still pay more than whites for everything from groceries to mortgages. They’d rather believe in nonsense like commentator Bill O’Reilly’s cockamamy sociological hypothesis about the supposed inferiority of black culture. As Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic Monthly put it in an insightful posting three years ago, “Expecting an American conversation on race in this country, is like expecting financial advice from someone who prefers to not check their bank balance.”
Blacks, too, practice deliberate denial about racial issues. Some of us don’t like to admit that way too many of our communities are plagued by self-defeating behavior that would not disappear if every vestige of white racism were abolished. White people are not the cause of all our problems, but you’d never know that if you listened to some of the talk at the barbershop.
The sad truth is that we’ve been having a national conversation about race since before the nation was founded. There are few topics, except maybe sports and sex, that obsess us as much.
But there’s a reason that all this yakking hasn’t yielded more in the way of understanding and racial justice — and it’s not black denial. It’s too many white people’s lack of candor. A lot of them don’t like to admit the advantage they still enjoy because of their color. Too many of them, like the editorialist at the Times-Dispatch, prefer to whitewash the facts because telling the truth about racial injustice would oblige them to do something about it. Until more of them are ready to do that, there’s not much to talk about.
Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor at The Root.