Can a Common Ethos Still Bridge The Racial Divide? | Opinon

I just want to pinch the air to see if the world is real at this moment. For once, the voices of resistance to acknowledging persistent racism in policing appear to be falling outside of the American mainstream. The reality of the scope of the issue grows more stark with the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. Now we confront the simple but hard questions: Where will this go? How do you sustain this movement? How will it overcome the inevitable racist backlash? Facing these questions now can prevent the progress of this moment from becoming entrapped in divisions: not only semantical ones, but also those between genuinely diverse visions of what new forms of true justice should look like; i.e. to defund the police or not.

Last weekend, I read a piece that contained a clue to framing dialogues on race in ways that can guide us through the next stages of change. C. David Moody Jr, owner of Moody Construction and President of the Atlanta Rotary Club, wrote a letter to Drew Brees that appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution Op Ed page. It was titled This is why Drew Brees' Words Hurt So Much.

...your words were very hurtful to me and so many Americans, because we know the history and live with the trauma of racism. of the reasons I admired you was because of how people said all the negative things about you not having the tools and stature to be an NFL quarterback. But you proved them wrong by working hard, and I am happy for you. Your NFL experience is similar to what it is like being black. We are told what we can't do because of the color of our skin and every day we do our best to prove the doubters wrong.

Moody's capacity to situate Brees—a white athlete who had to fend off accusations of racism after criticising players who kneeled during the national anthem–into a commonality lived by black people every day forms a powerful starting point for a true dialogue. This can help lead us across the divides rupturing our abilities to understand "the other." As President Obama said in his farewell speech to the nation: "If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

Stories that touch on shared fundamental experiences are one way in. African Americans sometimes try to bury the painful experiences of doubters with chambers of pride that are so easy to relish when we succeed beyond those evil ideas that attempted to limit our potential to racially imposed fictions. Yet the persistence of racism actually prevents us from leaving the darkness of the doubters firmly in the past.

I can never erase the moments when the writing of Richard Wright awakened me in my junior year of high school. I read many of his works and compiled much of the scholarship about his novels and essays for a major research paper in my Honors Junior English class. Two weeks after the paper was behind me, I was pulled out of study hall for a mandatory meeting with my English teacher. I enter a room and she gives me a "tell-me-the-truth" look.
"Did you write this paper?"
The question shocked me.
Damn right I wrote it, I thought, remembering being up late the night before I turned it in.
"Of course I did," I said.
I'll never forget her response. "No high school student, and definitely not you, could have written this paper."
She then put two books in front of me—with confidence as though she had me— asking me to find the footnoted material I quoted in the paper.

I easily identified the passages and she raised her eyebrows in shock. Her interrogation continued and I didn't back down. My parents contacted the school, throwing a fit and friendly black teachers at the school told my mom, a teacher at another school, that my English teacher claimed to have actually visited local colleges to try to find evidence that I purchased the paper.

This happened at a suburban public school outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. 35 years later, my son is a student at a private school in Manhattan. In his sophomore year, I saw the lights still on and my son hovered over his laptop and an assortment of books : up late, writing a paper for English, on Dracula. I asked when he was going to bed and he said he had to finish the paper. Like me as a high school student, when something consumed his interest, he was relentless (and could also be a slacker if he was not fully engaged.) His excitement on this paper was evident as he told me a little about his thesis. "Interesting, David," I said while thinking: Please wrap this up and get to bed.

He didn't heed my inner advice and kept going in a near all-nighter.

A few weeks later, he told us his (white) teacher asked if he had a tutor who wrote or helped him with the paper, evidently considering it was too good to have been written by him. Here we go. Back to the Seventies.

My wife, Valerie, and I contacted the school. The African American Upper School Head, like the black teachers at my high school, was sympathetic, supportive and said he was certain that David Jr wrote the paper without help. The teacher refused to budge from the idea that David Jr lacked the capacity to author such a paper, even as we told him that David did not have an English tutor.

The day after our meeting, David Jr came home with a smile, telling us his teacher told him in front of the class, "David your parents are so articulate." We then had to have another version of "the talk" to explain the racism inherent in such a comment.

The consequences of the expectations of two English teachers separated thousands of miles region and 35 years were not deadly like those of police officers who shoot unarmed black men and women. Yet the expectations of both are rooted in the same germ that infects many white American views of blacks and has crossed ideological lines even in the territory of those who consider themselves "progressive."

My wife and I discovered this in the Nineties, through a white liberal friend who had never uttered any sign of discomfort with "the other" in our presence--until Valerie shared a rather innocuous story with him on one Monday morning. Over the weekend prior, my wife and I were en route for dinner in Tribeca when we spotted John F Kennedy Jr at an ATM. I was a fan of George, the magazine he founded and he also served as editor-in-chief. A friend of mine had just become an associate editor there. I stopped JFK and introduced myself. We chatted about political journalism and the innovative space George created in that realm.

When my wife ran into our friend on Monday, she shared the story, jokingly citing her impatience with how "David can't help himself sometimes when it comes to talking to strangers."
Our friend's visceral reaction shocked Valerie:
"What did JFK do when David approached him?'
"He was very friendly," she answered. "What do you mean?"
"Well, you know, seeing as how a big black man stopped him at an ATM."

This white, liberal friend could not imagine a white stranger lacking fear at being politely approached by me, "a big black man" at an ATM. This is a strong demonstration of the fragility of racial comfort with "the other" and the fluidity of an individual's racial attitudes. In this instant, his progressive politics seemed to resemble what Obama saw in his grandmother when she clutched her purse in the presence of a black man at a bus stop. Or perhaps when she voted for Nixon, favoring his anti crime agenda, while raising her black grandson.

These are the same expectations of African Americans that live in the minds of police officers when killing unarmed black men and women. The journey to confronting these expectations may begin with acknowledging them and then truly moving on to seeing the common humanity through our shared experiences of defying negative expectations. In other words, the ability of whites to see their experiences of overcoming doubt unrelated to race as a way of unpacking what blacks face everyday that is often tied to race. Such a vision might inspire the erasure of racially charged expectations that haunt white Americans in their interactions with who they see as "the other."

Race played a role in the expectations of the teachers who doubted me and my son. It played a role in our friend's comment. It most certainly did not play a role in naysayers' low expectations of Brees' abilities as a quarterback. Many would say that this difference is what's important. I disagree: what's important here is the commonality. All three stories share the same cloth of overcoming doubts, doubters and low expectations. This experience, whether lived or aspired to, is locked into the foundation of the African American experience. But it's also as all-American as the Revolution.

Overlooking this commonality is missing an opportunity: the opportunity to forge authentic ways to heal some of the tensions rooted in America's original sin.

David J Dent, an associate professor of journalism and social and cultural analysis at New York University, is the author of In Search of Black America.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​