Talking about race: Um, you first

Times Staff Writers

How do we start a national dialogue on race?

Charlotte Griffin was at a restaurant one evening when a white woman complimented her on her children’s behavior. The stranger may have meant to be kind. But Griffin wondered if she heard a note of condescension -- an assumption, perhaps, that black kids aren’t usually so polite.

How do we navigate that minefield?

As a teenager, Stan North went to work on the assembly line at Ford. He made good money. But he noticed that he -- like all the other white guys -- always got the dirty jobs. Seething, he concluded that the boss wouldn’t dare give a black man heavy lifting, for fear of being tagged a racist.


How do we acknowledge that anger?

In his recent address on race relations in America -- prompted by his minister’s explosive sermons on that topic -- Sen. Barack Obama declared that whites must understand the black experience in America and blacks must appreciate the white perspective. Otherwise, he said, we face a grinding “racial stalemate.”

His remarks struck a nerve: More than 4 million people watched the Democratic presidential candidate on live TV, and the speech is now a top video on YouTube, viewed nearly 3 million times.

Preachers and teachers across the country have been trying to figure out how to leverage that interest to launch deep, authentic discussions about race. In some quarters, there’s strong interest.


“This is a very good time to put everything on the table,” said Abdullah Robinson, 64, a black man who lives in suburban Atlanta. “We don’t know nothing about each other, and we’ve been living together for hundreds of years.”

But others don’t want any part of a dialogue that starts from the premise that there is a black America and a white America. They don’t want to hear about victims and oppressors. It’s past time, they say, to move on.

Blacks “bring up the enslavement card way too much,” said JoAnna Cullinane-Halda, 64, who just opened a home decor boutique in rural Colorado. “I’m Irish. My people were enslaved as well. But it’s far enough in our dark past. We’ve gone beyond that. Let it go.”

The complexities of opening a dialogue on race were evident after a day of long conversations with African Americans in Lithonia, Ga., a suburban haven for black professionals outside Atlanta, and with whites in Franktown, Colo., a working-class town in the hills southeast of Denver.

Carmen Van Kerckhove, co-founder of a diversity consulting firm in New York, described the dynamic this way: “Human beings tend to be really focused on their own oppression, and tend to be less interested in hearing about the oppression of others.”

Old resentments

North, 50, grew up in integrated Detroit. He went to school with black friends. He played ball with them, swam with them. Every now and then, fists would fly over a racial insult. Then they’d all go back to hanging out together.

As far as North was concerned, everyone was equal. If anything, he said, blacks were better off because affirmative action gave them a boost into college. His own grades weren’t good enough for a scholarship; he ended up building engines at Ford.


A few years in, he tried to get shifted off the heavy jobs -- but his boss, he said, dismissed him with a curt: “You’re a white boy. What’re you crying about?” North looked around. He noticed that when minorities complained, “they got moved to a different job, because [the supervisors] were afraid of the race card.”

Now North has a good job repairing tractors and trailers in Franktown. But when he reflects on his days at Ford, he feels the old resentment.

“I kept hearing: ‘Minority this, minority that. Blacks aren’t getting this, blacks aren’t getting that.’ I’m disgusted with it,” he said. “OK, fine, they’ve gotten stepped on for 400 years. Let’s give them something [to make up for it] and be done with it, the way we did with the Indians.”

He’s had enough, he said, of identity politics: “If you’re born here, you’re an American. Period. Act like an American.” A fellow mechanic began listing racial and ethnic groups: African American, Hispanic American, Chinese American.

“It’s tiring,” North interrupted sharply. “These people had the same opportunities I did. . . . And they want everything handed to them.”

Same opportunities? Same schools, same sports teams, yes.

But Wayne Sledge, who is 48 and black, went to an integrated school in Georgia -- and he doesn’t remember everything being so equal. Sledge said it was clear that “the white people didn’t want the black people in the school.” There were bloody brawls. A pep rally was interrupted by a student in a Ku Klux Klan hood. “It was pretty rough,” said Sledge.

Pam Miller also went to an integrated school in the mid-1970s, in suburban St. Louis. Her most vivid memories are of terror:


Two white men chasing her with crowbars.

A white boy trying to throw her over the banister at school.

A white girl -- someone she’d thought her friend -- standing by, laughing, as Miller ran down the street chasing a truck carrying two of her white tormentors. Miller slapped the girl.

Today, age 47 and settled in Georgia, Miller says she wouldn’t be so quick to strike. Her grandfather carried a sharp anger against whites all his life -- an anger that came from years of minding his place, years of “yes suh, yes suh, yes suh,” Miller said.

She doesn’t want such resentment to cloud her own life, so she has worked deliberately, with the Lord’s help, to shake free. She holds two jobs, at JCPenney and a coffee shop, and she serves up the same smile for all customers, black and white.

Still, her memories shadow her, shaping her perceptions.

The other day, a white woman shopping at Penney’s commented on a stuffed monkey for sale. Miller heard something in that remark. The woman made “monkey” sound like a racist innuendo. Maybe she didn’t mean a thing by it.

But Miller felt certain she did.

‘In this day and age?’

Lithonia is anchored by big new houses, upscale shopping and a gleaming, prosperous mega-church so big it has its own gym. It also happens to be nearly 80% African American.

So one of Ora Hammond’s white co-workers freely refers to the suburb as “the ghetto.” Another of Hammond’s colleagues in the operations department at Delta Air Lines complains that affirmative action amounts to racism against whites.

“We’ve said things to each other that hurt,” said Hammond, 49, who is black. “But the bottom line is: They’re still my friends.”

Hammond says he and his white friends talk about race all the time. The conversations can get dicey. People get mad. But it’s worth it, he says, because it brings them all closer.

In her small beauty salon in Franktown, Charlotte Britton, 65, serves white and black customers. But Britton, who is white, wouldn’t dream of talking with them about race. Part of that is business: She likes to keep chatter in the salon light -- no politics, no religion.

But the deeper truth is this: She never dreamed that anyone would want to talk about race. Until she saw video clips of Obama’s pastor sermonizing about black oppression, Britton said she had no clue that anyone other than a few hard-core white supremacists thought much about skin color.

“I thought we were past that,” she said. “I didn’t realize this was going on in the United States. In this day and age? I was shocked.”

In renouncing his pastor’s remarks, Obama urged blacks and whites to reach out to one another. He asked blacks to recognize that “most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. . . . No one’s handed them anything. . . . They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped.”

For whites, he explained that the roots of black anger trace a bitter path from slavery through segregation through legalized discrimination that kept generations of blacks from buying homes and working their way into the middle class.

Whites, he said, must acknowledge “that what ails the African American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination -- and current incidents of discrimination . . . are real and must be addressed.”

Britton, in her Country HAIRitage salon, finds that argument unconvincing.

“They’re bringing up slavery,” she said, bewildered. “I had nothing to do with slavery.”

‘This is America’

Over lunch with two friends at the Grill on the Hill in Franktown, Pat Millsap expressed unease about her mother’s views on race, especially Latino immigration. “I don’t like the way she talks about it,” she said.

Then Millsap, 52, looked down at her plate.

“You know,” she said, “I’ve been looking for jobs in environmental education. A lot of them require that you speak Spanish. It sounds so awful to say this, but it’s very frustrating. Shouldn’t they learn English? This is America.”

‘Even I want to move’

As she put the finishing touches on a client’s look in a Lithonia beauty salon, Griffin -- the woman with notably well-behaved children -- talked about her home in Conyers, a racially mixed suburb a few miles to the east.

She’d always thought of Conyers as a nice place to raise a family, with a slow-paced lifestyle and some pretty good schools. But lower-income blacks have begun to move in from central Atlanta, Griffin said, bringing crime and blight.

Whites have started moving out. Griffin, 36, blames that on racism.

Then she admits she’s not comfortable, either, with what Conyers is becoming. The new black arrivals are dragging down the quality of life. Sometimes, she said, “even I want to move out.”

The challenge of unity

“If we simply retreat into our respective corners,” Obama said last week, “we will never be able to come together.”

But coming together is hard.

It may require owning up to uncomfortable prejudices.

It may require seeing pain we don’t want to know exists.

Lorry Schmitz, who is white, was married for seven years to a black man. She says he chose to be oblivious to racism, but she saw and felt every slight -- starting on their honeymoon cruise, when passengers kept assuming her husband was a ship worker, even when he wore a suit and tie. Schmitz saw racism in the black community, too; her in-laws made clear that they wished their son had married a black woman.

Such attitudes disturbed her deeply.

“We’re stronger and smarter when we mix,” said Schmitz, 52. “This is supposed to be a melting pot.”

But Schmitz is an anthropologist by training, and she knows how tough it is to bring people together. “We are genetically set up to preserve our tribe,” she said, “so anyone who looks different or sounds different is isolated.”

She sighed, frustrated.

“It’s so complex,” she said.

A friend at her table interrupted, laughing: “It’s not black and white.”

Schmitz giggled. Then she repeated, more soberly: “No. It’s not black and white.”