Thursday, May 29, 2008

Talking about Race

In Thursday's New York Times, there is an article about gentrification in Northeast Portland. The article discusses a recent initiative called the Restorative Listening Project that brings together blacks and whites (of the upper-middle class progressive variety), and the neighborhood's displaced black people and those long-time residents who are facing higher rent because of the recent development in the neighborhood share their stories. The white people attending the hearings (and there are some *amazing* quotations) love this; most of the black people find it useless. Talking about how their rent has gone up is not dealing with their problem, although it apparently salves the consciences of many of the whites who have participated.

One woman says the following: “That’s been our history,” Norma Trimble, who is Native American, said during the question-and-answer session this month. “They take all you’ve got. They take your land. Now they want your stories.”

But, as a recent study (by a Northwestern researcher) has shown, white people are so afraid of being considered racist in their daily lives, they most often choose to avoid people who aren't white.

I think the juxtaposition of these two stories exemplifies the fundamental problem with how we talk about race in America - a problem that Obama addressed in a new way in his speech on race. Clearly the Portland project has good intentions, but it's so ineffectual (read the article to see why) that it could also be published in The Onion.

At my book club meeting last night, I encountered something related to all of this, spoken by upper-middle class women. First, the "my black friend told me . . ." defense. After describing how emancipation disrupted the black family because it changed the steady social order of slavery, the book club woman suggests that while slavery was bad, emancipation did more harm. And then she proceeded to draw the conclusion that the difficult situation of a 1940s black woman in the South on emancipation.

I jumped in - umm, you're actually completely wrong. Black people reunited with family members after the Civil War . . . and your statement ignores the 50 years of institutionalized and legal racism encoded by Jim Crow laws, and the fact that persistent white racism is the real problem, not emancipation. She responds to me with the familiar line: well, this is what my "black friend" told me. Is this a defense of her statement? A statement implying that me, a white girl, can't know the truth, even if this subject happens to be exactly what I have spent the past six years of my life studying?

This incident followed a discussion with a Clinton supporter about how women are the most oppressed "race" in the country. Where is an American historian even to begin?

Conversations are good. I think that more Americans - white and black - need to have them. But I don't think Portland's plan is the answer, and I think that if anything, Portland's project fosters the sort of situation that leads to white people feeling like they do in the Northwestern research project.

We need something different from the model where black people talk about suffering and white people sympathize and grow. (See The Bridge Called My Back). The national conversation on race that Obama has called for needs to be more than well-off white people consuming black people's stories and then feeling better about themselves.

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