On Racial Reconciliation II: My conversations with Gerald
A small contribution to the literature on how we might try to get along as humans of different skin hues
I wrote something last week in which I discussed how egregiously wrong I think our present antiracism movement is on the question it purports to want to address. In practice, antiracism philosophy constitutes little more than a remade racism, in which the arrows have been rotated 180 degrees from traditional racism, so that non-whiteness now becomes the righteous position of vindictive judgment and moral purity, while whiteness is transformed into the marker of condemned inferiority and moral depravity. It should call itself a more honest name: instead of antiracism, perhaps neo-racism, or inverse racism.
Antiracism cannot possibly end in racial reconciliation. It is too transparently based in falsehoods and massive overgeneralizations and a priori judgment of individuals based on categorical moral condemnations and punitive fantasies about the responsibilities living individuals have for things that took place hundreds of years before their births. It can only make blacks vindictive and angry, and whites increasingly resistant and convinced of the malevolence of those like Robin DiAngelo and her fellows.
Are we doomed then?
In all honestly, I can’t definitively answer that question, much as I wish I could.
Because maybe we are. Maybe the problem that started with slavery and now takes the form of endless grievance not only for a slavery long extinguished but of myriad other offenses and exclusions, many mostly or wholly imaginary, is insoluble. Perhaps the most serious analyst of American society and culture ever, Alexis de Tocqueville, leaned in this direction. Societies do sometimes face such things. There is no reason whatever to be completely confident that American society will not ultimately be torn apart by our present tenacious commitment to thinking in group terms and believing (against the evidence) that everything in our lives is determined not by what we do individually but by what people who looked kind of like us did hundreds of years ago.
If I were a betting man, I’d guess that it’s at least even money that this is the way things shake out. Our elites (Charles Murray’s New Upper Class) have broadly embraced this poisonous worldview and their cultural reach is wide.
But it’s not inevitable. And I think we could do particular things that would make it less likely.
Like what? Well, let me talk for a minute about my friend Gerald and me. About our friendship.
Robin DiAngelo believes it’s merely an allusion to a “myth” when whites believe that “having a black friend” gives them some insights into race not permitted by her totalitarian view. I tried to make clear just how wrong I think she is, about this and nearly everything else. Hear me out and you be the judge as to the utility of what I offer here.
I met Gerald1 at the local pool while I was there reading, waiting for my daughter to finish her swim practice. I had seen him around the place a lot for a few weeks, wearing a painter’s overalls and carrying the tools of that trade, so I had guessed that the business of that occupation was probably what he was up to at the site. We had exchanged a few non-committal greetings (“How ya doin’?” “Pretty good, you?” “Same here!”), but both of us were clearly busily attending to other things and so our exchanges ended there.
Until the day they didn’t.
I don’t remember now precisely what was said, and who said it, to move our relationship to another level. It might have been him asking me what I was reading, or me asking him what he was painting, or some combination of the two, or something else entirely. However it happened, we started talking. Over the last month or so of my daughter’s swim season, I’d guess we spent at least 15 minutes of just about every weeknight chatting about this and that. So not a relationship of great duration, but I think one substantial enough to call it a friendship. I certainly felt much closer to Gerald during those conversations than I feel to most of the people I’ve worked with now for more than two decades.
Oh, yes, Robin DiAngelo would want me to remind you: I am white, and Gerald is black.2
Now, how did this matter of race factor into our interaction?
I certainly understood that Gerald bore the phenotypical appearance I have come to associate with people who often self-identify and are generally identified more broadly socially as black. I strongly suspect that he understood the same about my whiteness, though I never asked him and he never mentioned it, and nor did I ever mention my assumption about his racial identity to him. So whatever role it played in our interaction, it did it absent any direct engagement by either of us.
I make so bold in fact to say that both of us approached our interaction in a manner that was in the most meaningful way color-blind. (Yes, I know that “color-blind racism” is, in the view of some of our more dismally woke academics, the most insidious kind!). That is, though we certainly must have known visually who we were likely dealing with in race category terms, that knowledge played no real role in informing how we talked to one another or what we talked about. Again, I know that as a certainty only from my perspective, as I’m inside my head and not inside his, but I saw no indication whatever that he was treating me as a “white person” in our conversation (whatever that would look like), and certainly not in the sense that DiAngelo imagines ought to be the model for white-black interactions.
I have painters in my family, so it was not hard for me to be interested in that aspect of what I correctly gathered was his own activity at the pool. We talked briefly about that line of work, how difficult it is, how much skill is required to do it well. I mentioned my own very brief experiences as a kid helping my stepfather in his painting business, and offered a sense of how quickly I realized that I would never be capable of doing it well, and how much I admired those who were so capable.
We talked a bit about the book I was reading, which just happened to be a memoir by a Vietnam war veteran talking in agonizingly difficult terms of his experiences in war. We agreed that war is a dirty business, and that those who are sent to do it have a task still harder than the task of painting or teaching in a university (I told Gerald at some point in our conversation what line of work I was in).
We learned of one another that we shared something far deeper than my tiny experience in his line of work allowed: we are both fathers and husbands. We talked a great deal of those roles and relationships. The amount of shared ground here was very considerable indeed. If there were any racial angles that differentiated my experience of fatherhood from Gerald’s, or his experience of being a man married to a woman from mine, I did not recognize it, and I would be surprised if he did either.
The great moral charge and difficulty of imparting a system of values to our children occupied much of our discussions. On this topic, it was as though we had always known one another and could perfectly anticipate the ideas that were being advanced by the other before they were spoken. We talked about how hard it is to let our kids be independent, which is an essential skill to learn, when we are so motivated to protect them from risk and danger, which is an essential thing fathers do. We talked about the ways in which our broader culture seems to be interested in making it harder to be a father and a husband, and our agreement here too was in practical terms total.
At some point relatively early on in our first long conversation, we came upon the topic of religion. At this moment, it was apparent to me, and I believe to him too, that we had learned something essential that we already guessed from what had gone before in our exchange.
It can scarcely be overstated how important deeply shared moral and religious belief is for social solidarity. Though the percentage of Americans who are willing to tell survey researchers that they adhere to the religious traditions that were once essentially universal in this society has been steadily shrinking, it is still the case that the majority of us share this cultural language that formed one of the points of bedrock for my conversations with Gerald. This shared set of experiences and beliefs has, for long centuries, made it possible for people demonstrably different in many ways to carve out a country together here in this land and to see one another as brothers and sisters beneath our superficial differences.
These Judeo-Christian principles that formed the strongest links in the web of friendship we wove in those conversations were at the root of nearly everything else that bound us together. Our shared understandings of our familial responsibilities and joys, of our commitment to hard work and self-reliance, of our love of the country that we share, all of it was arguably fortified by the more fundamental belief we share about the meaning of our lives in this realm and the need to hone our souls in preparation for the next.
Our conversation was effortless, and I believe I can speak for him here too. (He certainly seemed as at ease in our conversations as I felt, though, again, I realize I’m not inside his head—but we are never inside the heads of other people and we somehow manage to carry on social interaction nonetheless). It mattered greatly that we both started from the same moral baseline, I am certain, and once we knew where the other stood, it was the easiest of things for us to assume the best of one another and to extend ourselves in real human warmth.
Compare this to DiAngelo World. That gives you interactions between blacks and whites in which everyone already knows everything about the other and the interaction in advance, and the inevitable outcome is a simple-minded morality play in which angels line up on one side and devils the other, the former fervently asserting victimhood, the latter enthusiastically self-flagellating. Here, each conversation is something like an interrogation and a confession at the police station.
My interaction with Gerald was something entirely different. It was an interaction between two human beings, assuming nothing but good will about one another and endeavoring to share a little convivial warmth in a world with too little of that. No prickly sensitivities about imagined slights or offenses received elsewhere or nowhere other than in the insinuations in poorly conceived books written by intellectual grifters. No demeaning or self-righteous preconceptions about identities beyond what was communicated in the face to face reality of interaction.
Is it conceivable that some aspects of difference in identity become realized through past experience as deficits and debts in the way the antiracists claim? It is. Certainly people live different lives, and some are advantaged and others disadvantaged in specific ways and in specific situations. But the calculus of this is simply too difficult to carry out in real interactions, and it’s always far more complicated in the particulars than the primitive moral framework of the antiracists. And in any event, it’s beside the point. There’s no way of knowing what any individual has in the way of that personal balance ledger, and we have the pressing business of dealing with one another anyway. Here we all are, right here, right now, in the complex mess of our real lives. We are on solid ground in treating one another as equals and disdaining cardboard assumptions about one another based on childish ideologies. It is the best we can do, and we should do our best.
I know the race-obsessed tribe of the DiAngelo-ites well. I have worked in their midst now for decades. They can effortlessly find a way to debunk my account. Their cynicism is boundless. One feels motivated mostly to pity that malady they suffer. Whatever such people might believe, I feel sure that no one who was physically present as I spoke with Gerald could have felt as though our racial identities formed any kind of barrier to our human connection.
If there is a way forward on racial reconciliation, it will not take the form of Robin DiAngelo’s neo-racism. It will look something like the conversations I had with Gerald, multiplied many times over, and (here’s the hardest part) it must be championed and enabled by our culture’s elites if it is to become truly widespread.
But it is a real worry going forward in this country that we are seemingly slipping away from the cultural glue that so immediately and effectively bound me to Gerald and him to me. How will things go between those marked by phenotypical difference, once they are sufficiently charged up with hateful ideologies of resentment and group guilt, when there is no acceptance of deeper truths that bind them inexorably to one another? We are seeing the answers already. It is not a cheerful picture. We must do better.
Not his real name, but instead the name of another black friend, from my youth, a fellow member of a rock band I played in sometime during the late Carboniferous Period.
Note that I do not capitalize either ‘black’ or ‘white.’ I wish I could adequately communicate how ridiculous I think otherwise smart people are when they spend a lot of time thinking about such things as whether or not to capitalize one or the other or both terms, or whether we must now all stop using them altogether and accept other terms handed down to us by those more enlightened than we mere mortals. I just like them both in lower case. That’s the explanation.