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Desegregating our hearts and minds still has a way to go

April 15, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

This marks the 60th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson broke into Major League baseball, becoming its first black player. Team members across the league will be wearing No. 42 today in his honor.

The rest of us are celebrating the week by having a nuclear-sized blow-up over race, the fuse having been lit by radio host Don Imus.

Nice. Perhaps it was just way too much to ask that this week could have been celebrated in a spirit of racial harmony.

While acknowledging that we still have far to go, ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan remarked last Sunday that an incredible amount of positive change has taken place in America over the past 60 years.

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A stunning amount really, as social change and history go. That's good. And it's a branch we can hold on to when it seems - as happened this week - that the rest of the tree is falling.

Imus' comments, at this point, need no more rehash or commentary.

They emphasize the point that blacks and whites have been desegregated physically, but it will still be a while before mental desegregation kicks in.

In the end, it may be like desegregation battles were initially - horrible, sometimes unwatchable, but necessary to the process.

This week's melee may just be one more nasty and necessary pruning, which will eventually encourage fresh, healthy growth.

There was so much to cringe about on either side. Predictably, out came the argument, "well blacks say hos (and worse) so why can't whites?" The answer to that is clear. It's the same way you can utter a discouraging word about one of your own family members, but should someone outside your family say the same thing - well, you know what happens.

Why is that concept hard to understand?

Blacks fall into similar traps. Imus' friends have been criticized for not taking the man aside before this and telling him that some of his jests were no longer funny or acceptable. Yet, aside from some strong voices of people such as Leonard Pitts, there has not been a similar "intervention" on the black side of the ledger in regard to hip-hop's crudeness and misogyny.

The argument that Imus is disgusting while rap is either art or free speech is not valid.

Neither is the argument that no one in the white race can understand. Certainly our understanding is incomplete. But be assured, there are whites who can see the bigger picture, even if they haven't walked a mile in black shoes.

They are the ones who understand that the racial issue in America didn't begin in the '60s, but in fact goes back four centuries. They are the ones who understand that 350 years of horrible history cannot simply be erased without consequence or without pain.

Whites don't get a 350-year mulligan. Oops, our bad, now let's all get along. It doesn't, it can't, work that way.

Still, many whites I know, many with good hearts, can't seem to reconcile this. They say they want to be friends and equals and move on. They resent what they see as a black tendency to read race into everything. They are, and I think genuinely, hurt that their best efforts never seem good enough and that, in a sense, it's all right for the black race to criticize the white race, but not the other way around.

But again, social history is the key to understanding.

For centuries, blacks suffered unimaginable miseries in the holds of ships. They saw their spouses and children sold at auction, never to be seen again. Then came beatings, whippings, backbreaking labor, lynchings, insult and injustices that have lasted into modern times.

And we whites, here in the year 2007, are worried about having our feelings hurt?

I know we never owned slaves. I know we don't see why we should have to pay for the sins of our great-great grandpappies. But we do. We do. Time is a fabric, not a line. Our ancestors left us a great and rich nation, but the estate is not without its debts that must be repaid.

In a perfect world this is not fair. But the world is not fair, and this is reality.

I cannot look a black person in the eye and say, "I am not a racist." Because racially tainted thoughts have crept into my mind from time to time. No person, no matter how spiritual, would tell you he is a perfect Christian. So why do we insist to blacks that we are pure of the slightest racial indiscretion? They know that's not true; is it any wonder we are distrusted?

I can, however, look a black person in the eye and say, "Most of the time I am free of racially inspired thoughts, and when one creeps into my head I recognize it and do my best to beat it down."

And until we can look ourselves in the mirror and say, "yes, I do have one or two unhealthy ideas about race - now what am I going to do about it?" it's going to be awfully hard to change.

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