Recent remarks by Tim Wise, a figure known nationally for his views on race, admonishing his audience to "listen" to people from other races is a bit discouraging given experience and the years that have gone by, but not since a president has been elected using racial baiting as a campaign tactic.
It appears we are back to square one and the prognosis is not good. How many outbreaks of racial violence will there be in the "Trump" era? We have no idea what his response will be--nor the response to him. As a white male, I am most concerned about the hotheads on either side leading us further down the road to national disgrace and ruin. As a former Detroiter, I've seen it happen and have little doubt it can happen again. History more often than not repeats itself; the lessons are rarely learned.
One thing Mr. Wise doesn't mention listening to is the voices from the past, especially given what has transpired so far in the battle of ideas over what to do about it. In this regard, I'm encouraged by one development: the revival of interest in the work of James Baldwin. He is the survivor of the wars of the past in influencing the future. It should be remembered he was eclipsed during his lifetime for many years by the hotheads, who held sway of the headlines and the fears of those easily influenced by them.
I recall seeing Baldwin booed off the stage by his plea for moderation. After all, his seminal message, that it is not the victim who is defined by racism, but the perpetrator, was offensive to perpetrator and victim alike--and took thought to understand--a rare commodity regardless of one's race. I remember reading "The Fire Next Time" in my parents kitchen in the suburbs of Detroit while the tanks were entering our old neighborhood, finding at least some comfort in the depth of his understanding and attempt to reach out to all sides.
In retrospect, I'm not sure what's worse: the hotheads who take over, or the obfuscaters who use events to promote themselves and their own interests. They're the ones who narrow the discussion to the participants at any one time, or broaden it beyond the reach of individual responsibility. Baldwin made race and prejudice of any kind a moral issue that is firstly and lastly determined within the mind and heart of the "listeners."
So no doubt, that is the prerequisite. It's not enough to root for a team that is not composed of people from your race, or admire a singer or actor from that people. Or to even see that today many of the commentators on our most fundamental issues are from all backgrounds, or that the unthinkable has happened in Baldwin's time: a man of color not only became our president, but a president who served everyone--not just those who elected him. I think Obama did that extremely well, as is expected of a President who leads rather than is led by the mob.
The backlash was and is inevitable. Listeners are and will always be in short supply as are those who can read a book by Baldwin or anybody and have their own thinking changed by it. The city of Detroit that I grew up in is gone. What remains is still highly segregated and I see little disposition to think about the consequences as time goes by. I'm one of the thousands, indeed, some two million people who left because they saw no future in a place so desolated by racial confrontation. Has there been a mass migration from a major city in American history greater than what happened in Detroit?
Bitterness and resentment remain entrenched 50ty years after the riots. Great disparity doesn't work. It's a sad, sad cliche to have to repeat saying it only breeds discontent. If the forces of moderation both in terms of ideas and actual experience do not change civility for everyone is threatened. Baldwin said this again and again. Many who know it are neither talking nor listening.
It is not so much the overt racists who concern me since there is little that can be done about them, but those simply negligent in admitting they have any responsibility in the matter. Racism is not unlike an addiction. It's a strategy for self-protection that is harmful and takes an effort to alleviate. A racist today knows they have to lie in most communities and certainly when their community reaches the spotlight because of that negligence. Only then do those who know better wake up. That's the simple truth.
There were few if any leaders when they were needed in Detroit, but nothing quite like it had been seen before. That is no longer true. If nothing else, perhaps there are a few more at this time in the nation's history. Those able to recognize them are the folks who won't allow cynicism to drown them out. Tim Wise appears to be one of them.