Racial Discourse

Racial Discourse

Talk about “race” seems to be entering public dialogue again.[1] The popularity of Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” seems to be a reason for this. Yet there are many people who avoid conversations about “race” especially with people of different “races.”

I recently read an article by James Cone.[2] Professor Cone is a Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in NYC. He is well-known for his work on Black Liberation Theology. In this article, Dr. Cone suggests that one reason white people will avoid racial discourse is because blacks become too emotional. He responds to this by encouraging whites to put themselves in the positions of blacks.

Imagine growing up and discovering that the country you live in has oppressed your ancestors because of the color of their skin. Imagine understanding for the first time that because of the way laws are written and the way institutions are structured, you are more likely to go to prison that you are to go to college.

“Would you be angry about 246 years of slavery and 100 years of lynching and segregation? What would you say about the incarceration of one million of your people in prisons- one-half of the penal population- while your people represent only 12 percent of the U.S. census? Would you get angry if your racial group used 13 percent of the drugs but did 74 percent of the prison time for simple possession? Would you caution the oppressed in your community to speak about their pain with calm and patience? What would you say about your sons who are shot dead by the police because their color alone makes them prime criminal suspect? What would you say about ministers and theologians who preach and teach about justice and love but ignore the sociopolitical oppression of your people? Black anger upsets only whites who choose not to identify with black suffering.

But even whites who acknowledge black suffering often insist that we talk about our pain with appropriate civility and restraint. That was why they preferred Martin King to Malcolm X. Malcolm spoke with too much rage for their social taste. He made whites feel uncomfortable because he confronted them with their terrible crimes against black humanity.” [3]

What does it take for whites in the U.S. to empathize with black suffering? What does it take for people to listen to what blacks are saying about current drug policies and social attitudes about “race,” even when they come across with “too much emotion?” How should we handle emotion in racial discourse when it is central to our experiences?

Below are two videos. One is of Dr. King and one is Malcolm X. What emotions do their speeches arouse in you?

[1] I use parenthesis around the word race because the word has no biological grounding; it is a word we have made up to use against people for better social positioning.

[2] James Cone, “Theology’s Great Sin,” in Soul Work:Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialogue, ed. Marjorie Bowens-Weatley and Nancy Palmer Jones. (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2003).

[3] “James Cone, “Theology’s Great Sin,” in Soul Work:Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialogue, ed. Marjorie Bowens-Weatley and Nancy Palmer Jones. (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2003), 9.

  1. Quincey Schenck says:

    I thought your article was very interesting and made me think about the way people talk about racism in our country. When talking with different racial groups people tend to not want to speak their true opinion due to the possible backlash they could possibly receive. I also think that racism is hard to understand if you don’t have prior history with it. Your article definitely got me thinking.

  2. cesarina says:

    The concept for this article is something I have contemplated and thought about previously. I feel highly appreciative for the existence of this article; as well as it’s purpose: encouraging more discussion on the elephant in the room – racial inequality in the United States.

  3. henil patel says:

    when you asked “What does it take for whites in the U.S. to empathize with black suffering?” i don’t think white people in the U.S. will ever be able to empathize with black suffering. the pain they went through for hundreds of years isn’t something that people will be able to empathize with.

    • breannayepez says:

      I agree that white people need to put their self in the African American’s shoes. It is really sad that an African American is more likely to go to prison than to be educated just because of their color. Even though slavery has ended, there is still suffering in a less obvious way. Racial discrimination is unethical and needs to be stopped. We are all created equal, yet we are treated differently because of our race. American’s are conditioned to look at symptom levels not the roots. So, by taking action in putting oneself in the shoes of an African American, I believe that it is getting to the root of the problem because that is the problem-a lack of empathy because they don’t exactly see and feel how the blacks do because they can’t relate to a history that the blacks had.

  4. Brian Strohmeyer says:

    I agree with the fact that white people don’t and probably will never understand what African Americans went through. I believe that African Americans have a good reason to be emotional about their past because of all the hardships that their ancestors had to endure. Professor Cone made a good point by telling white people to step in the shoes of African Americans so they know why they become so emotional when talking about race.

  5. Nicole G. says:

    I think this article was very interesting because I agree that race is a sensitive subject. I often find myself watch what I say in class especially if a person of color is in the class as to not offend them.

  6. Brianna Mobley says:

    I think this is a great topic to discuss because racial inequality is something that has been, and will continue to be, prevalent in society. It made me truly think about the way race is looked upon and talked about by different people. I agree that it is truly hard to understand what position African Americans are in when talked about the past, which is exactly why it is understandable for them to be sensitive to what is said. I also thought it was interesting to see Dr. Cone’s suggestion of a reason that white people will avoid racial discourse.

  7. C123 says:

    I think that his topic was very interesting, and very relatable. Not only can one person relate tot his, but different kinds of races have experienced racism, either they were being racist or there were people being racist to them. African Americans were one of the many races that racism has affected their lives. Not only was it decades that racism affected them, but many centuries they were repeatedly abused by racism.
    I agree that Caucasians should think about what the African Americans had to do to get to where they are today. Though racism is not 100% solved today, it has made a very big difference, compared to many years ago. Racism is something that has been with us for centuries, and I feel that if you or your family or race does not have a history, or have not experienced any racism; you would not truly understand what racism is, until you personally get hit with racism.

  8. Mindy Lugo says:

    I think this a touchy subject. If you are white a lot of white people would rather just not address the topic because you don’t want to get into an argument and come off as racist to a black person. But in fairness to black people we should still recognize the oppression and the pain that was inflicted on them from our ancestors. I tended to lean more towards Martin Luther’s speech than Malcolm X. Malcolm X seemed angry with the white people and more of black power rather than racial equality and peace like Martin Luther.

  9. Eric Folcik says:

    I think it’s important that there were both people like Dr. King as well as Malcolm X who were leaders of the civil rights movement back in the day. On one hand, you have Dr. King, who peacefully rallied for the rights of African Americans. His method was non-violent, and so was probably looked upon as more acceptable by many people (black and white) and possibly more effective at spreading awareness of racial inequality. Proof of the effectiveness of his method can be seen in Gandhi’s life. On the other hand, you have Malcolm X, who on the surface was more outspoken but appeared to be more passionate and determined to get his points across, hence “by any means necessary”. It’s important that both of these men were visible in the public’s eye because each one may have appealed to different groups of the population (opposers as well as supporters) and therefore together helped usher in a new age of racial equality, faster than say, if only one of these men were leading the movement. Personally, I don’t think there is such a thing as “too much emotion” when it comes the issues of human rights. If you and your people are suffering mass injustice, you have every right in the world to show how you feel. Holding back your emotions too much in this case, may mean leading an ineffective movement.

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