Who Admits to Race Bias?

The Washington Post and ABC News recently released a joint poll about the impact of race on the presidential election.

…nearly half of all Americans say race relations in the country are in bad shape, and three in 10 acknowledge feelings of racial prejudice.

The survey also reveals that:

More than six in 10 African Americans now rate race relations as “not so good” or “poor,” while 53 percent of whites hold more positive views.

So the majority of whites claim to hold more positive views of race relations? I hate to be cynical, but I have to wonder what the gap is between one’s professed views and his or her actual views, especially after the telephone conversation I had about two months ago with RJ (not his real name), who told me he’s absolutely not prejudiced and there’s no race problem in his state.

RJ is a white man in his seventies who lives in the Mississippi Delta. He does church-related work and has lived and worked in the Deep South all his life.

I decided to send RJ my new book for young readers, because I heard he had contacts with a large network of private schools in the South. My book A Thousand Never Evers is set in 1963 Mississippi and recounts a 12-year-old African American girl’s personal struggle to come to terms with her racist society. I was hoping that RJ might introduce the book to educators he knows.

“So how did you like it?” I asked.

“We come from two different opinions on this stuff,” RJ told me. Then he drew in a breath. A really big breath. And from there, he spoke his mind—seven single-spaced pages worth.

When I asked if I could use what he wrote on my website, he said I could so long as I didn’t use his name. He said, “To tell the truth the way it is could be real dangerous.”

Normally, I’m against using quotes without a real name, but in this case, I’ve decided to make an exception, because I think it’s critical to remember that there are people in our country who think the way RJ does. While RJ’s thoughts may not be unique, what is unusual is how he communicates them: plain and simple. He doesn’t even attempt to drape his ideas in euphemism or cloak them in good manners. And RJ, himself, doesn’t see his statements as racist at all.

During our talk, which focused on the civil rights movement, RJ said some things that I’d expect to find as dialogue in works by William Faulkner or Harper Lee:

I believe the biggest problem with a lot of people is a deep-seated culture. That’s why the conflicts happen. I live here and there are still black people living on plantations. For some reason they’ve never elevated to the point they can make it on their own.

When I asked RJ whether he felt poverty played a role in the problems he perceives, he said:

I don’t think so. I grew up poor. Even though I didn’t have two pair of overalls to wear, they were clean. Even though we didn’t have a bathtub, I got in a washtub. I had to take my lunch to school. I couldn’t afford to buy it. I know all about poverty. I think anyone in the free enterprise system who has a desire to be better can be.

The next part of what RJ told me caused my jaw to drop and almost hit my desk. But somehow I managed to keep typing. He said:

Have you ever seen the people in Africa? Don’t you think the people who were brought here as slaves had an advantage over the people who weren’t brought here? Over there they died like flies. Many of them who were brought here were taken care of by the slave owners who paid their doctor bills, gave them food to eat, clothes to wear. It was a blessing for them. Had I been born in Africa I sure would have been glad to get out of there.

RJ then said that when he was a young man, one of his closest friends was African American. I asked if he socializes with any African American people now. He said no:

But if I go to a restaurant where they are, I don’t mind talking and visiting with them. They’re more segregated than I would be. They like their own kind. Would you feel uncomfortable to be invited to a house where someone eats with chopsticks?

Not sure where this was going, I told him that I like exploring other cultures. He challenged me:

Would you like to eat pig lips, pig feet, cow intestines? They have that in the grocery store. You can buy pickled pig lips and pickled pig feet and chitlins (pig intestines). I don’t know if you’ve ever been around a pigpen but it’s very smelly. There’s a lot of things in their culture they brought from Africa and they haven’t given them up.

I could almost imagine RJ having the exact same discussion with one of his buddies, while sitting out on a porch somewhere on a steamy Mississippi Delta evening in 1963. Almost. Except in 2008, RJ is wrestling with the progress of our nation, and it seems he sees some good in it. After all I’ve heard, I’m astonished when he then says:

The civil rights movement measures up with our Constitution that all men are created equal. I’ve always believed that. I don’t know why there’s that resentment. One of the greatest ideas (came from) Martin Luther King. He might have gone overboard on some things, but he was right on other things.

When I tell him that a lot of what he says sounds racist, he says:

I’m not prejudiced. Absolutely not….The reason I’m speaking out the way I am is that the other side of the coin is never addressed. It’s absolutely culture not race. I don’t think there’s a problem whatsoever about race.

So I can’t help but wonder whether RJ would be categorized in a survey as a white American with positive views of race relations in our country.

And I can’t help but think we’d all benefit from more honest discussions such as the one I had with RJ, or the one we had as a nation in the wake of the recently-publicized statements made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

They may be uncomfortable talks, sure, but what better way is there to deal with these scars? We’ve got to reopen these wounds and look at them anew. It’s the fundamental lesson of democracy: We’re not all going to agree but it’s by listening to each other we might gain a better understanding of the conflict.

One thing’s certain: Over the next four months until the general election—through surveys, discussion and debate, and the vote itself—the picture of race relations in America will become more clear to us all.

Posted in Uncategorized on 06/08/2008 12:27 am
 

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