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Obviously, we need to talk

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By ELIJAH GOSIER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 11, 2001


Sometimes the obvious does need to be stated.

Over the years I have written often in this newspaper about how race pervades the lives of people living in the United States. Sometimes the influence is minor, sometimes decisive.

I believe that solutions to problems begin with identifying them, not with ignoring them and hoping, no matter how sincerely, that they eventually will go away.

Obviously, this country does have some problems with matters of race.

Not so obvious is what those problems are, how we begin to fix them, or on whose head falls that responsibility. Those are the kinds of specifics I have often addressed, hoping at optimistic times to ignite some initiative, or simply to direct constructive thinking to them.

For that I have been called many things by civil people.

I have been called a racist. I have been called an apologist for criminals, deadbeats and a host of other amoral cretins.

I have been called a poverty pimp, a black supremacist, a hater of white people.

I have also been called a godsend, an inspiration, a voice of reason.

These were all by civil people.

By those less civil, I have been called, well, other things.

Reaction is always strong -- and polarized -- when the subject of race is broached. Perhaps that is why so many find it desirable and more comfortable to avoid it altogether or discuss it only with people they suspect share their views.

That also is why a newspaper, which reaches a cross section of people and viewpoints, is an ideal forum for opening the discussion. For many, even those with acquaintances and co-workers of other ethnicities, the newspaper is likely the only source of dissenting views on race. Because of the volatility of the subject, honest views are often withheld from cross-cultural acquaintances for fear of offending or being judged.

That leads to another obvious deserving of being stated: People of the various cultures that make up America are essentially ignorant of each other.

Even if you grew up in a community that, except for you, was completely black or completely white or completely Asian, you don't know what it's like to be of the other ethnicity. You can't. You may have a strong ambient sense of what it's like, but even if you're married to someone of another ethnicity, and are an eyewitness to how the world relates to your mate, you can still only fall short of first-hand knowledge of your mate's experience.

Your mate also falls short of knowing yours.

But the inability to experience the world in the same way as your ethnically diverse compatriots is no excuse for not trying to understand their experience.

Understanding makes allies; its absence sustains adversaries. Obviously, if we're going to exist as a multicultural society -- and all the alternatives are unpleasant or impractical -- then we have to come to terms with the role race plays in how we relate to one another.

And someone has to keep the discussion alive. White writers don't have the same mandate that minority writers have. White writers don't worry that their children and grandchildren will face the same barriers their parents and grandparents faced. White people are less likely to have their livelihood in the hands of someone of a different race. White people are more likely to get through a day without wondering if their race played a part in it. Most, usually all of the institutions they encountered were controlled by other white people. White people are less likely to have their lives adversely altered by a race-based judgment.

If race is going to be meaningfully discussed, then the initiative and the passion must come from non-white writers, from the people with the greatest incentive.

They must take the risks. They must decide that the good to be derived outweighs the names they will be called. They must decide their goal is greater than being universally applauded or compensated. They must decide their work is necessary.

That's the easy part of the task. Not so easy is deciding what to write about. This country's history and economy -- and human nature -- has made race relations an emotional, explosive topic.

Obviously, our problems don't come from the traits shared across cultural lines. Most people, regardless of race, want comfortable lives in a healthy environment and a fair chance to pursue their individual goals.

The problems -- in race relations -- come from our differences, real and perceived.

But not all of our problems are race-related. Some of them emanate from regressive changes in societal values, the effects of which are amplified in minority communities.

Too many people no longer instill discipline in their children. That omission becomes telling in overcrowded communities with inadequate constructive outlets for unguided youthful energy.

Too many people no longer advocate education as the route to success. The result hits hardest in communities already suffering from undereducation.

Too many people condone cheating, lack of integrity and the end justifying any means, and that's devastating in communities where legitimate goals already are too easily abandoned as unattainable.

Too many people use race as an excuse to fail. In response, too many people refuse to see the role race plays in some failures.

It is obvious that race plays a role in America's daily life. It shouldn't.

But if we don't honestly deal with it, it always will.

That, too, is obvious. To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail gosier@sptimes.com.

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