Radio hosts Oliver Thomas and Charmel Gaulden convened WBOK’s “Good Morning Show” on May 27. The theme: “Race Matters: A discussion to promote understanding.” But does such a discussion promote understanding?
One of the participants, Loyola professor Michael Cowan, chairman of the New Orleans Crime Commission, had his doubts. “Talking about race is not always a helpful way of addressing these problems and it sometimes makes them worse,” he said. The others of us invited that morning, Pastor Tom Watson, of Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries, and business strategist Brian Trascher, who identified himself as a Republican, were more optimistic about the efficacy of conversation. I wondered to myself why Cowan had agreed to be on this show.
In being here with these movers and shakers, I was filling in for a friend who wanted to be there but couldn’t. My realm is mediation, psychotherapy and writing. I said yes immediately and then freaked out.
Not one generally to lose sleep over stuff, and not one to cram, I nevertheless lay awake the night before the show rehearsing answers to all the questions about race I could imagine being asked. Around one a.m., when I realized there were probably a few thousand more questions that I wouldn’t get to, I went to Plan B. I caught a cold and started sneezing and blowing my nose like crazy. Well, you can’t go on the radio when you are sneezing and blowing your nose, right? So they could just send me home.
At 5:45 a.m. I gallantly got up, showered, dressed and drove myself to the station. They showed me which button to push if I felt a cough or sneeze coming, and we went on the air.
The discussion was nuanced from the get-go. When Thomas asked us if there was a problem with race in America and why, Cowan cited institutional, systemic, structural racism, which he defined as “policies and practices that are connected to skin color where someone has the power to reinforce their prejudice on someone else.” He distinguished this kind of racism from the more obvious kind, the kind involving bigotry and subjective attitudes. He pointed to the “war on drugs” and its consequences for African-American men as an example of institutional or systemic racism. We agreed that it was rooted in the appalling history of slavery and Jim Crow and carries that tradition forward to this day.
Listen in on the panel’s discussion, courtesy of WBOK:
One caller noted that racism is functional. White people benefit from it. A caller named Pop Jones said he doesn’t believe it’s in white people’s hearts to actually love black people. Trascher spoke of racism as big business. Watson shared some personal experiences. Several times, he said, people have tried to buy his St. Charles Avenue church because they don’t want to see black people in that neighborhood. He also shared this observation: “I feel like a ghost when people I was side by side with in the military see me on Canal Street and don’t even speak.”
So far so good. We all pretty much agree about what the problem is. OK, then, why is it so hard to talk about? The white men in the group — Trascher and Cowan — were adamant that they didn’t want to be lectured to. Cowan insisted that confrontation creating white guilt leads to inertia, a negative emotion that shuts down partnership.
Watson, on the other hand, contended that where there is no confrontation, there is no resolution. Conflict leads to change. “You gotta talk things out. If you don’t want to talk about family problems, they won’t get solved,” he said. A caller supported Watson’s view, noting that “human beings don’t change unless they feel uncomfortable. Guilt is uncomfortable.”
When I said I thought it was hard for white people, certainly me, to listen and talk about race, Watson asked me why. I had had the whole night to mull this over. As I tossed and turned it occurred to me that it might be a character flaw on my part, but I shy away from guilt. I actually see it as useless because it bolsters defenses and is linked closely to its evil twin: blame. There can be a kind of remorse of conscience that is healthy and leads to atonement, making amends, and compassion. Maybe that’s just using different words for the same thing, but the truth is, none of this figures into my resistance to discuss race.
To ask me to examine race, is to ask me to question my very identity — not comfortable, I told Watson. I believe that whites in America absorb that sense of superiority with their mother’s milk. “You mean it’s in the DNA?” Watson asked me. Absolutely not, I replied.
White superiority is unnatural and that’s why it has to be taught and reinforced from day one. It’s a false identity that needs to be so strongly planted that by the time we reach the age of reason, we are socialized to not even notice it, I said. I wish I had also said that white superiority has many benefits; it’s just that they could and should be shared with everyone: being given the benefit of the doubt, being expected to succeed, having a safety net to catch us when we fall. These things are wonderful. But if I want to hoard them or keep them only for white people, or think that I have earned some special right to these privileges, then I’ve made a pact with the devil. I have alienated myself from most of the people on the planet. If my identity, my sense of who I am, is based on a false idea of superiority, that is indeed a deep spiritual disease.
The radio conversation gets dicier as we move on to the subject of power. Who’s at the table? Or, as Watson put it, “Who’s on the menu?” That small group of white elites that we keep hearing about, the ones who run the city … ? Trascher agrees that they do exist. He says they don’t come to the table not because they don’t want to help or they don’t care. “They don’t want people to know that the club exists. They just don’t want to be outed.”
Watson declares that the charter school movement was done “to us not with us. It was part of a Master Plan. Think about that name.” Cowan points out that white people have been showing up for 10 years to call for Levee Board reform, criminal justice system reform, Aviation Board reform, and the creation of ethics panels. Watson: “Where, who, and when?” He says he feels left out.
Cowan offers an insight prompted by the tension now running through the discussion. The conversation about changing people’s attitudes and the conversation about changing institutions don’t mix, he declares. Gaulden asks if we can switch from talking about emotions to talking about outcomes and maybe gain a deeper understanding about where the real power lies.
Based on our little radio experiment, I’d say no. There is no way to disengage attitudes and emotions from any constructive conversation. Mediation has taught me that. But here’s the thing: the race construct has conditioned us to think of each other as the problem and forget about the real problem. Remember how at the beginning of the show we all agreed about what the problem was? Trying to solve it went out the window with this exchange:
Cowan to Watson: “I think you are so blind.”
Watson to Cowan: “You’re blind because you are a white man scared to deal with your guilt and your own misunderstandings about black people.”
Cowan accuses Watson of arrogance and presumption.
Watson: “Here’s a white man calling me arrogant who’s racist. You don’t know me.”
Thomas intervenes, trying to calm the waters: “No one here is a racist.”
Here were two highly intelligent, deeply spiritual and committed civic leaders — Cowan and Watson — who had agreed to come on a WBOK show to talk about race. And yet the malicious race conditioning trapped even them. It’s enough to make you believe in the devil. What if they could have looked at blindness, fear, guilt, arrogance, and race prejudice as limitations that we ALL have, that we can acknowledge and need each other’s help in correcting?
It’s true we don’t know each other and we don’t trust each other. Why should we? How can we? We need honesty about our attitudes and emotions to remedy that. You think I’m blind? What am I not seeing in you?
As a white person I’ll probably find it harder to leave my comfort zone than someone who has learned how to build a life outside that zone. But I have to be willing and I have to relinquish control. And then the hardest thing: I have to re-examine who I really am. Otherwise I will never know you, or myself. I will never trust you. Or myself.
That’s the leap we will take — we must take — if we’re going to solve these complex problems together.
Orissa Arend is a mediator and psychotherapist. She is the author of “Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans.” You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.