If you wish to become an optimist and understand life, stop believing what people say and write, observe and discover for yourself. — Chekhov
Howard Beach, Central Park, Bensonhurst: These tragic events are fact, they are indisputable. I believe. But what’s being said and written about them—that America is an irredeemably racist nation—I don’t.
One, because an irredeemably racist nation wouldn’t even acknowledge it had a racism problem in the first place (and, oh, how we acknowledge it). But, two, “observe and discover for yourself”: A measure of racial harmony does exist today between blacks and whites, and it is reality that was incomprehensible just a generation ago with its segregation and lynchings.
What’s newer than the “new” racism (which, except for the baseball bats, looks like the “old”)? It’s the new comity. The world is a more capacious place than our polarized public discourse allows. (And so, I would wager, is Bensonhurst.)
Consider recent events in public life. A black general is selected by a white president to chair a white-majority military. In baseball two blacks are named team managers. And, most impressive because the result depends on more than one decision maker, blacks are winning white votes and winning new offices: David Dinkins took Manhattan, Norm Rice took Seattle, Doug Wilder took Virginia.
And in our streets there’s the evidence of our own eyes. Blacks and whites walk together, talking; blacks and whites suit up in sweats and jog together; a growing number of mixed couples, well, mix. In restaurants and bars we see blacks and whites dining together, drinking together, being together. This is comity, and it’s mandated not by law but by choice.
Small beans, you say, compared to the murder of young black men? Small, yes, but not irrelevant, for it is the inclusive—and human—impulse behind, say, “Let’s lunch” that is our hope, that must be encouraged, over and against the exclusionary “Us” vs. “Them” mentality. Martin Luther King had a dream that one day “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” This dream is about comity, and it plays out not as Olympic spectacle but prosaic vignette.
Yet the problem of smallness remains, and it’s a “problem” not because comity is negligible as a value but because, in the reporting of the big picture, it usually goes unremarked, leaving the impression it doesn’t happen.
Example: In 1987, while my husband had command of a U.S. warship, there occurred onboard a copycat version of the notorious Citadel incident in which, as a “joke,” a group of white cadets donned white sheets and terrorized a black cadet. However, unlike the Citadel incident, in which the black cadet resigned because of the school’s inaction, my husband found guilty not only the perpetrators but also the onlookers (precisely because of their inaction) and the supervisor (for defending the incident as “having fun”). But which incident did you hear about? The bad news. Yet the good news did happen.
But even when good news gets reported, it’s usually as “human interest,” which is to say, no real interest at all. Which is also to say, maybe the real problem lies with how we define news: Hate-driven violence qualifies as “hard” and thus front-page, but “doing the right thing”—comity—is “soft” and (editorial kiss-of-death) “sentimental.”
Until this particular prejudice is overcome, one headline you’ll never see is “Racial Incident Averted on U.S. Warship: Justice Prevails”—and yet it is reality. A quiet reality (it would get a “Boring Headline” award), but then being human is a quiet kind of thing.
It’s not just the media’s dilemma: dramatizing the human and good has been the classic dilemma of capital-A Art since forever. Even the Bible fudges: The Prodigal Son gets his own parable and a party, the good son gets the label of sanctimonious milquetoast. It’s the unbearable lightness of decency.
How truly ironic, this perception of comity as light, small, “soft,” when in actual living fact it takes the exact opposite qualities to achieve. Most likely the white and the black lunching together arrived at that table only after a long and arduous odyssey of disturbing the family peace and shaking the neighborhood status quo by asking tough questions like “Why do you say that?” We “troublemakers” have chilled more than one Thanksgiving dinner. And some have broken off family ties completely. Getting to racial comity has often meant discommoding relations with our own race.
Meanwhile, the racist assumes his racism automatically, without bothersome questions, without causing upset. Easy does it. Frankly, the only part of a racist’s odyssey that’s hard is learning the right grip on the baseball bat.
All this is not to say “Relax.” Just because comity exists does not mean we cease battling the re-emerging racism. For one thing, it is past time that blacks and whites of good will, when confronted with racist remarks, exercise their own First Amendment rights and reply “Say what?” For another, we need to rebuild alliances.
And for another, we must recognize this battle requires a lifetime commitment, not just a season’s. Somehow we got the idea that the advances achieved in the ‘60s were permanent; clearly, they are not.
Many people of good will are in despair over the revival of racial violence. We need fortifying. For this, we might “observe and discover” (as Chekhov advised) two things.
One is self-credit. Chekhov’s countryman, the late Andrei Sakharov, admired Americans for their self-criticism. Indeed we’re masters at it, vide the rant about our irredeemable racism. What we need also learn is the art of self-credit, for the current violence notwithstanding, we’ve achieved more in race relations in just two decades—a flash in terms of social change—than other nations have managed in millennia. (Note the ethnic rivalries resurging in the Soviet Union and Central Europe now that Communist control is fading.)
The other tonic is the existing comity itself. Soft and smarmy and sentimental as it sounds, our sustenance lies at the “table of brotherhood” where some sons of former slaves and some sons of former slave owners now sit. King’s dream has come partially true. Let us celebrate—and stoke up.
Carla Seaquist, former Equal Opportunity Officer for the City of San Diego, is a writer living in Washington, D.C.