The disgusting, racist cartoon in the New York Post (2/18/09) depicting two officers having just shot a chimpanzee and a caption clearly linking the chimp to Obama, really jolted me and made me reflect deeply about our culture and my own feelings about race. Not that I haven’t thought about this a lot already—but seeing such blatant racism in the mainstream media rekindled the inner debate.
Having grown up in DC I had plenty of mixed-race interactions—socially, academically, and professionally. I didn’t experience much of a racial divide among my peers (fellow students and musicians) whether or not they were African American, Indian, Chinese, or any other race. But I did experience a significant class divide, and this, too, was true regardless of race. When I was young, kids who grew up with violence, who lived in tough neighborhoods, who were poorly educated and aggressive, scared me, no matter what color they were. The fact that many more black kids grew up that way than whites (certainly in DC) might have made race a stand-in for what was in reality a cultural or class divide. In my own experience the divide was much less about race than it was about socialization—differences in education, values, language, and style.
Yet, I was quite aware that there were huge polarities around me: truly racist whites, and lots of blacks with chips on their shoulders, some of whom betrayed a kind of reverse racism through their resentment and justifiable but counter-productive anger. These two polarities were—and are—mutually reinforcing. I really liked the way Obama addressed this during the campaign. He got at both sides of the problem, and laid responsibility fairly where it belonged: on all of us. Ultimately, I think the solution to racial tensions in America lies in the celebration of our differences within the context of shared human values. But it takes making an effort.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a service at a Unitarian Church in Portland, and I had to laugh as the nearly all-white congregation tried to sing an old Negro Spiritual. At one point the organ accompaniment stopped and the choir tried to clap along in an embarrassingly weak attempt to capture the rollicking energy of a black gospel choir. These people need some tutoring by a real black choir, I thought! And that led to another idea: that the racial divide in America won’t go away by itself. We have to work at it. We have to reach out, get outside our own comfort zones from time to time, and make an effort. Churches and other civic institutions can invite musical and cultural exchange. And as individuals we can make uncomfortable choices, like which table to sit at, and with whom to strike up a conversation.
As blacks and whites discover and acknowledge commonly shared values—most importantly our ability to smile and laugh together—we can let go of the fear, resentment, anger, discomfort, and other emotions that have perpetuated the racial divide in America.