Matthew Stokes: Talking about race

Matthew Stokes: Talking about race

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

Southerners are hardly of a uniform mind on the topic of race. Most of us don’t want to talk about it, and those of us who do should probably stay quiet every once in a while.  Put crudely, Southerners usually fall into one of three camps. The first camp is the one who never, ever want to talk about race. There is a second camp that never stops talking about race. In this camp, everything is about race. Every zoning law, every voting regulation, every unpaid college athlete is a sign of unaddressed racism. Most of us fall into a third category on race that is sometimes cowardly but more often sincere in its attempt to be judicious and fair to everyone. We recognize the issue is a landmine and while we are often too skittish, we honestly want to do right by our friends and neighbors.

I remember the first time my high school classes talked honestly about race. Like a lot of Alabamians, I went to an almost all-white high school. It was unfortunate that we didn’t get comfortable with a diverse group of classmates at a young age. Nevertheless, one of the weird byproducts was that as young people we could ask our teachers a lot of questions without the fear of being overtly rude to anyone else. A lot of our questions were framed imperfectly, as you might expect with teenagers, and our teachers really did their best to push us towards being open and accepting of others, bridging divides, and all the other things that you hope to see in young people.

The problem that we always circled back towards was one of guilt. Guilt that our families had done something wrong during the Civil Rights Movement. Guilt that we were doing something wrong in the moment. Guilt that our material comforts – both real and perceived – came at the expense of someone else. That’s a difficult thing to process, and it’s made even harder as most people try to get on with the business of earning a living and raising a family. Sometimes the issue of race becomes unavoidable, as in the case of President Trump’s recent comments about the four young Congresswomen known as the Squad; Ilhan Omar, Rashida Talib, Ayaanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  These women represent a very progressive bent of the Democratic Party, and President Trump has been eager to paint them as the face of the Democratic Party.

Omar and her compatriots do not hate America. Instead, they have a profoundly different view about America’s past and her future. I share some limited agreement with Omar on the former point, but I have intense disagreement on the latter.  Those disagreements are political, however; they have nothing at all to do with race or religion. President Trump’s ongoing tendency to focus these women, while making far milder criticisms of politicians like Bernie Sanders who hold very similar views, should make every American uncomfortable.

Closer to home, a group of fraternity members at the University of Mississippi made headlines with an Instagram photo that showed them posing in front of the grave of Emmett Till armed with guns.  This is an act that is at once so stupid and cruel that it’s hard to imagine that educated peope could do such a thing in 2019. Young men have always been prone to doing transgressive things but some things are beyond the pale, and this is one of them. I generally shy away from racial discussions that force the mythical “us” to look into the mirror, but if southern young people find this sort of thing to be humorous, it’s probably time to have that talk.

I’m not sure how to cure Alabama’s – and America’s – racial problems.  What I do know is that basic decency and citizenship should demand a couple of things.  No matter how much we may disagree, we do not suggest that fellow citizens go back to where they came.  We do not desecrate the graves of civil rights martyrs. No matter how much we may wish to honor or respect our forebears, we do not do so in a way that glorifies slavery or Jim Crow.  This is not hard. Our state and nation face enough challenges that we should not be fighting such petty battles. Supporters of the president may object to progressive rhetoric – I certainly do – but the only thing patently unamerican is the attitude that citizenship is contingent upon politics.

The President and his supporters may disagree strenuously with Ilhan Omar and her compatriots.  But it is beneath both the dignity of the Oval Office and the character of American citizenship to even joke that an American citizen be sent out of their own country. The American compact was based around a handful of key ideas about natural rights; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It has never meant that one must hold the right opinions on immigration, taxation, judicial appointments, or foreign policy. This sort of Know-Nothing anti-immigration sentiment was wrong when directed at Irish and German immigrants in the 1840s. It was wrong when directed at Italians, Jews, Russians and Eastern Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th century. It is wrong today when directed at Hispanic and Islamic immigrants. And it is especially vile when directed at American citizens.

President Trump’s supporters show no signs of wavering in their support. They have their judicial appointments, tax cuts, and deregulation. Most of those things are fine, and some are very good. Only a handful of those supporters were present for “send her back” chants earlier this month. Trump’s supporters should not allow themselves to be convinced that support for the president means acceptance of this behavior. It is simply not true. There are plenty of ways to thread the needle that critiques this rhetoric while defending the policies. Creative voters need only to use their imagination to make their voices heard.  It’s time to make that happen. 

Matthew Stokes is a contributing writer for the Alabama Daily News.  He is a writer and college instructor from Birmingham, Alabama. For more information on his work, follow him on Twitter at: @yellingstopal