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Don’t let the dialouge die

Black Student Association | Tuesday, March 17, 2009

We would like to applaud Christie Pesavento (“A nation of cowards,” March 3) for her willingness to confront issues of race that face this country. However, we feel that this particular line of dialogue may serve to undermine our collective efforts and stunt an honest and thorough conversation on race.

Firstly, one need not be the literal author of a particular piece of legislation to be a figurative one. Even if we grant Pesavento’s point, it would seem that we cannot demand accountability or moral responsibility from a President based on a particular bill passed through Congress. Is this the kind of slope we want to travel on?

Secondly, we do agree that it is unlikely that the New York Post cartoonist set out with an intent to create a racist cartoon. However, we cannot logically infer that a particular cartoon is not racist from a belief that intentions that caused this particular cartoon were decidedly non-racist. Simply put, it is possible for a cartoon to be racially offensive without its author intending racism, and since many black people believed it was racist, it was. Al Sharpton and other critics were objecting to the actual content of the cartoon being racist, not its author.

As a matter of course, media outlets must be more sensitive to publishing potentially offensive material in a way that some of us may not be in everyday discourse. Consciously reflecting on, considering and publishing a reasonably offensive (whether non-affected persons regard it as offensive is irrelevant) cartoon for mass consumption is an entirely different exercise than a person saying something off-the-cuff that could potentially be construed as offensive.

Thirdly, while our nation’s efforts at recognizing the accomplishments of the black community and legislating of equal rights laws must be noted, we must also recognize that the de jure ending of segregation does nothing to alter the de facto segregation that still exists institutionally. Most of the pressing problems that America faces today (unemployment, failing schools, poverty, health care, crime, etc.) disproportionately affect the black community. These circumstances are direct effects of that ugly era where “we” took Africans into slavery, “we” denied them citizenship and basic human rights and “we” continued to employ blatantly segregationist measures well into the 20th century.

Attorney General Holder, in calling us a nation of cowards, was merely imploring us to come to terms with our past. Real dialogue cannot begin until we can dig through the attic of our nation’s history and reflect on how certain actions and attitudes brought us to where we are today, and how we can move forward. Superficial dialogue, as we believe Pesavento’s piece reflected, is not enough. Simply constructing arguments along the lines of “But my best friend/President is black!” undermines the entire dialogue on race.

Lastly, we wish to make two intertwined points. Frankly speaking, black people have historically been victims in this nation. This does not mean black people should continue to be victims, but to ignore acts (however seemingly innocuous) that may serve to perpetuate the racial divide is irresponsible of the black community, and, furthermore, of our nation’s citizens. If one is not black, it is inherently difficult to explicate why or why not a black person should feel victimized in a particular situation. Some blacks feel victimized in some situations, some don’t. Some tend to feel victimized more often than others. In any case, this judgement should be reserved solely for members of the black community. We’re all (for the most part) trying to contribute to the dialogue on race, not fuel the fire.

On a different side of the same coin, it is inherently difficult for a non-racial minority who has not had to cope with the lingering effects of racism (of the institutional, not the individual sort) to empathize with those who have felt historically victimized just because of the color of their skin. But their experiences are a reality. Though race is, by most accounts, a socially constructed concept, it is still real insofar as we recognize it and have historically recognized it; how we have historically recognized it is a crucial factor in how we interact and have interacted with our fellow countrymen.

Pesavento calls us to see each other as fellow humans, but we must not forget that race plays a significant part in our socio-cultural identities. We will always have a history of strained race relations, no matter how far they run into the distant past. The sentiment, however, that race does not sufficiently define us as humans is crucial, and our most important task is to balance these two notions in our construction of a truly diverse society.

We would like to thank Pesavento again for opening an opportunity for dialogue, and we sincerely hope that the dialogue does not die a tragic death at the end of the week.

This letter is written on behalf of the executive board of the Black Student Association. Its contributers include: Aaron Quarles, Megan Black, Danielle Keller, Chrisandra Downer, Coutney Haynes, Khai Thomas and Marques Camp. They can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.