ESSAY #3 – 9.29.20, POSTED 1.29.21

It's Time: Just Talk With My Brothers

A lot of people seem to believe that we are ready for a paradigmatic shift in race relations. But before making big changes, in order to avoid a backlash, we must read the people and listen to all points of view. My three brothers are fair minded, intelligent men who represent political opinions across a spectrum. You may not get all three to agree to the change that is needed for racial reform, but if you talk respectfully with all of them, you might learn something and it will serve well in the end.

It’s Time: Just Talk With My Brothers

Many people think that Abraham Lincoln was a great president, and if you ask them, everyone will give you different reasons for that belief. One of the things that really sticks with me from reading a biography many years ago, is that Lincoln had an uncanny ability to read the population and to lead the people from where they were—careful to not get too far out ahead of them. In a time when the telegraph system was the premier means of long-distance communication, and without the help of pollsters or the internet, he was able to read the political headwinds and maintain the support of the people.

During the Civil War, Lincoln used this ability to bring an end to slavery—an American institution that had enjoyed the protection of the British Crown for 147 years, and then the US Constitution for another 89 years. He did it in two masterful strokes: first, by issuing a wartime proclamation that freed the slaves in the Confederate states that were in rebellion from the Union and second, by pushing the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, through a reluctant, lame duck congress, when all around him counseled waiting. (There is an epically dramatic scene in the movie Lincoln where he is talking to his cabinet, pointing with his long, bony finger at each secretary in turn, saying, “Now!” Lincoln’s ability to read the people allowed him to see, despite the opposition, that the country was ready for this momentous change.

Reaching a critical mass

In our most recent history, huge changes take place when a critical mass emerges that could not have been predicted only a year or two before. Ten years ago, gay marriage seemed a distant dream for those who were advocating for it. Today, it is the law of the land and widely accepted, so it is no longer a political issue, and has fallen out of the viewfinder of the political class. I am not saying there aren’t people out there with objections, or that there are not still those who are repulsed by the whole LGBTQ community, but the country has reached a critical mass of acceptance, and there is no going back. What exactly is critical mass? I don’t know, but I would say that it is far north of 50 percent. Considering that it is next to impossible to get 70 percent agreement on just about anything in politics, including the color of the sky, I’m guessing critical mass is somewhere between 50 and 70 percent. Hmmm, that makes 60 percent a convenient target.

A lot of people seem to believe that we are at an inflection point that could cause a paradigmatic shift in race relations, and based on polls, some 60 to 70 percent of the population may be ready for a change. That sounds like a critical mass to me. Abraham Lincoln might have thought that this is the moment to act. The problem with polls is that they don’t always tell us what questions were asked, who asked them, and who was asked, so it is difficult to know what they really mean. Is it just that the population wants to do what is necessary to keep black men from being killed or incarcerated by the justice system at a greater rate than white men? Or is there a willingness on the part of this critical mass to engage in a complete conversation about the relationship between the black community and the rest of us—a conversation that would bring about true reconciliation and healing?

Let’s assume the latter, for the sake of conversation.

The backlash

You might say that the American Civil War was also an inflection point. It ended slavery, and after the country’s feeble attempt at reconstruction, the Jim Crow Era set in, legally segregating the South for 85 years. Jim Crow was a backlash to the end of slavery, which was imposed on white southerners against their will. Of course, the South was not the only place that racial discrimination happened.

But that era ended in the 1950s and 60s with the modern Civil Rights Movement, which culminated with civil rights legislation outlawing segregation and states’ suppression of the Black vote. We then entered into a period of greater opportunity for Black citizens in America, outlawing racial discrimination in hiring, and providing better access to opportunities in education and business.

Though most people are on board with these changes, some are not, and another backlash has been taking place, this time more quietly and privately, in places laws can’t regulate. (Not that it hasn’t shown up in public institutions, where individuals with personal bias interpret rules, regulations, and laws according to personal preferences, and apply them accordingly.) This quieter form of racial prejudice has been partially fed by the application of Affirmative Action programs, which left some whites feeling like their career opportunities were foreshortened by policies applied to correct the errors of previous generations. For some of these whites, there is lingering personal resentment based on a sense that things are unfair for them.

What we leave our children

I say all that to suggest that it will be in our children’s best interest to proceed in a way that engenders the least amount of backlash possible. We must read the people, as Lincoln would have done, make changes recognizing where we all are, and when necessary, wake a few people up. I don’t think the backlash of events that happened before could have been avoided, but it might be possible to minimize what happens in the future. We are never going to have unanimous agreement on anything we do as a nation, but the more people on board at the beginning of applying new policy, the less resistance we will experience in the implementation, and the less backlash future generations will have to address in their time. None of us created the world we were born into, and none of us have accountability for the culture we were raised in. However, all of us can be responsible for the world our progeny inherits.

I’m not attempting to define the agreements we make as a people. I am more concerned about how we go about it than what we come up with. I believe it is important that we create an open conversation about racial reconciliation that engenders broad participation. The success of this great adventure will be measured more by what we hear and learn from each other than by what we each have to say.

Reconciliation can’t take place until we can understand and even articulate another’s point of view without judging it as right or wrong—just taking it in fully, without insisting on responding with our own opinions. I know that, before they begin a process of this nature, many will want to know what the end result will be. But it can’t be known. There can be a stated intention, but there can’t be a foregone conclusion of what it will look like. We will have to trust that the process will bear fruit—although I believe the true fruit of reconciliation will come in the process, and the agreements will follow naturally.

A nation of my brothers

As of late, I have been doing my own little survey among friends and family about the idea of “Reparations.” I asked two questions: “What does the word ‘reparations’ mean to you?” and “What do you think about it (as it relates to contemporary current events)?” There have been a lot of responses across the board, but the ones I got from my three brothers were most instructive:

Brother #1 was very open to the possibility and felt something should be done, but was very pessimistic that anything could or would be done. He was emphatic.

Brother #2 wondered about the Irish, Italians, Asians and Indigenous peoples—would we need to do something for them, too? He also mentioned that he was born in the middle of the last century, and that he hadn’t benefited from slavery or segregation.

Brother #3 simply answered that he thought the welfare system had already taken care of that.

Now, my brothers are all very bright men with good, sharp minds, and they are all capable thinkers. They all are loving family men, and care deeply about the places they live and the country they will leave behind, at some point. They are good-hearted and fair-minded, and they all grew up with a hard-working, sometimes impatient father and, they would all agree, an incredibly loving and patient mother. Like me, they were born and raised in Michigan and are between the ages of 65 and 73. Most of them have more hair than me. We are all old white men. You should also probably know that, although I consider these descriptions to be accurate, they are my own expression, and I am using them for my own purposes. My brothers might not consider them to be true.

Given all of that, if you engage my brothers in a conversation, they will listen. But here’s the thing: if you want to understand the meanings of the words that come out of their mouths, you will have to listen to them first. If you can do that, then when you speak, you might be able to get them to hear the words that come out of your mouth, the way you really want to be heard.

Brother #1 will likely come along quickly.

Brother #2 will listen, ask good, solid questions, and will respond justly, with his heart and mind.

Brother #3 will listen, process what you have to tell him, and make every attempt to treat what you say fairly, but he may never come around to agreeing.

The thing we have to remember about people is that they didn’t choose the way they think about the world or how they relate to it. Everybody deserves to be respected, and to have their opinions considered. My brothers and I all grew up in the same town with the same parents, religion, schools, etc., but we all have differing beliefs about how the world works, and we process information differently. And there is truly nothing wrong with any of us.

We are a little like the nation in that way.

Ready for change
Cultural change sometimes seems agonizingly slow, but I am convinced we don’t always have to wait for older generations to die off for deep change to happen. I know this is not an easy process, especially if you are conducting the conversation in the open or on social media. It will be damn difficult, but we can do it. We just have to learn from what doesn’t work and what hasn’t worked in the past. There are plenty of examples on social media of what doesn’t work, and plenty of examples in our history books of what hasn’t worked.

What all of this says to me is that it is time to fully engage this conversation. If we truly and openly invite each other to walk a path of national racial reconciliation, we can alter the culture forever. If we get brothers #1 and #2 to sign on to the process, we will reach the critical mass that ensures longevity. However, if we can engage, listen to, and understand brother #3, we might be able to minimize backlash for the next couple of generations.

Just give it some thought.