And so, as I watched it all unfold, I couldn't help but think of the speech Attorney General Eric Holder gave in recognition of Black History Month back in 2009.
Here are a few excerpts.
One cannot truly understand America without understanding the historical experience of black people in this nation. Simply put, to get to the heart of this country one must examine its racial soul.
Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.
Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation’s history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us...
We know, by "American instinct" and by learned behavior, that certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks, at best embarrassment, and, at worst, the questioning of one’s character...Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race conscious and yet is voluntarily socially segregated...
And so we should use events such as this to not only learn more about the facts of black history but also to learn more about each other. This will be, at first, a process that is both awkward and painful but the rewards are potentially great. The alternative is to allow to continue the polite, restrained mixing that now passes as meaningful interaction but that accomplishes little. Imagine if you will situations where people- regardless of their skin color- could confront racial issues freely and without fear. The potential of this country, that is becoming increasingly diverse, would be greatly enhanced. I fear however, that we are taking steps that, rather than advancing us as a nation are actually dividing us even further. We still speak too much of "them" and not "us"...Our history has demonstrated that the vast majority of Americans are uncomfortable with, and would like to not have to deal with, racial matters and that is why those, black or white, elected or self-appointed, who promise relief in easy, quick solutions, no matter how divisive, are embraced. We are then free to retreat to our race protected cocoons where much is comfortable and where progress is not really made...We cannot allow this to happen and one way to prevent such an unwelcome outcome is to engage one another more routinely- and to do so now.
Remember the flack he got for saying this? I certainly don't remember most white progressives "having his back" on this one.
And yet he was speaking a powerful truth that we need to hear. As the dust-up at Daily Kos shows...we are a nation of cowards when it comes to the conversation about race.
Why is that?
I think its because such a conversation is hard and requires painful self-reflection. And as long as whites are in the majority - we don't have to do that. We can avoid it by claiming that our pain in confronting it is caused by the manner in which it is pointed out to us - rather than something we have to face.
And yes, it takes courage on both sides. For people like me, it takes the courage of being willing to find out you are wrong (or ignorant) about some things. And for people of color it takes tremendous courage to once again believe that someone will listen and to deal with the anger that's built up over centuries when they haven't.
If you're white and interested in having the conversation, Jonathan Odell has some pointers.
It’s hard work. The illusion that a relationship is good if it is easy needs to be dispelled...
There is an honest, open give and take, non-defensive dialogue: This may sound obvious, but a lot can go wrong when you are trying to prove you are not a racist, intolerant or even mildly prejudiced. Let it go. Defending your credentials deflects attention from the issue at hand.
The emphasis is not getting it right, just on getting it: You have to step out of the “right or wrong” dilemma. The point is not to agree or debate, or to win, but to understand. This takes an entirely different type of listening...
There is a high tolerance for discomfort, especially your own: The more you try to act like you know what you are doing, the less likely you are to connect authentically. Don’t feign certainty to cover up ignorance. You cheat yourself out of learning.
There is a distrust of quick fixes that smooth over the issue of race: Problems that get fixed with “I think we are saying the same thing,” or “It’s only semantics,” or “let’s just agree to disagree,” or “lets focus on our similarities,” will not stay fixed.
The language you use is personal, not corporate-speak or diversity-polite; There is a willingness to speak to the moment, instead of using safe, tested scripts: People can tell when you are handing them a line or being patronizing. It is necessary to address the person and the issue with the freshness and curiosity and the vulnerability of a first-time experience...
You have to be willing to work harder than the other person: Don’t expect tit-for-tat or immediate reciprocity or overwhelming gratitude. That’s not the way history is undone. You may have to risk going first many, many times before people take you at your word.
The other person can’t take on the task of teaching you: “Just tell me what you want,” is translated into, “You are too difficult to figure out and not worth my time. Give me the Cliff Notes” It’s not far from there to, “If you would do it our way, things wouldn’t be so difficult (for me).”...
There has to be unqualified acceptance that the other person is the expert on the way they see things: You will save tons of time and frustration by not trying to convince the other person that their reality is faulty, that if they would be rational, they would take your word for how things are. “Let me see if I can understand how you see it,” are magical words.
It’s ok not to get it and admit it: Understanding takes work. Pretending to understand, when you don’t, for the sake of your image, is the final contract for losers. “Since we aren’t up to the work, let’s just say we did it and go home.”
There is a tolerance for “button pushing”: There are certain loaded phrases that can make us give up on each other and immediately bring a halt to the conversation, i.e. “You people,” “typical white male.” Don’t let them. Hang in there and get beneath them. Forgive each other in advance. Learn to be interested in why the other person would react so strongly to your use of certain phrases rather than defending your choice to use them.
Give up the illusion that you are going to role model perfection. This only gives you and everybody else an ulcer...
There is no permanent fix: Sorry, there is no final answer. Diversity is not a problem to be solved, but an ongoing set of challenges. Success is the ability to respond authentically to each one as they arise. You will never stop adding to your took kit.
If you don't get how hard it is by now, you're not paying attention. If we're ever going to be something other than a "nation of cowards," this is what it will take. I certainly don't expect any of that from the Tea Party crowd. But perhaps we progressives could at least give it a try.