I had two very different conversations about race relations recently. The first left me with the hope that someday skin-color will no longer matter. The second brought me closer to understanding why so many people have moved to the furthest rings of Hartford’s suburbs; modern-day Ahabs in search of the Great White Community.
On Friday, I stopped over to see Sanford Cloud, Jr. at his home in Hartford’s West End. After successful tenures in a law practice and at the Aetna, Cloud is now the President of the National Conference (formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews). He is a Hartford native and a member of Governor Rowland’s Task Force to revitalize Hartford. Twenty years ago, I was one of his interns in the Connecticut State Senate.
Tall, handsome and eloquent, Cloud is a human silver lining who sees a future America which has gotten past the rubric of racial and religious tensions. The National Conference conducts seminars and role-playing simulations for adults and students all over the country which help people to learn different perspectives and hopefully, to foster mutual understanding. Cloud thinks there can be a compromise achieved through dialogue; a Promised Land of middle ground.
When I left his house, I had a better understanding of the obstacles faced by African-Americans and was optimistic that someday we as Americans will find a way to close the open drawbridges of segregation and mistrust. The feeling lasted about 24 hours.
Saturday, I rode my bike around Hartford’s Elizabeth Park. It was a gorgeous early spring day. The trees were hinting at the verdant green vestments they would soon don for the warm weather and a crystal blue sky was overhead. People were flying kites and playing tennis, the birds were chirping and I stopped atop a hill to take it all in.
My moment of meditational gratitude was interrupted. From a half-mile away (my high school cross-country team ran in this park so I know its distances) came the thump-thump-thump of somebody’s rap music. More irritated than brave, I pedaled over to talk to the thoughtful soul who was sharing his personal symphony with the whole park.
I rode up to a Hispanic guy with his wife or girlfriend and their two small children having a picnic. They had pulled their car up close to the table and cranked up the volume.
Maybe they wanted to drown out the kids -- who were screaming. As best as I could figure, the woman didn’t speak English at all.
“Maybe you don’t know this,” I shouted, “but I could hear this music a half-mile away.”
“So,” he responded, “What the (bleep) do you want from me?”
“Well, you know, people come to the park for the peace and quiet, or to hear the birds"
“You (bleep) white people think you own the place. This is just a white thing -- if this were rock n’ roll music you wouldn’t give a (bleep)”
“No,” I said, “I think it’s our park...yours and mine. That’s why I came over to talk to you.”
“I don’t need this (bleep). I’m leaving in half an hour so why don’t you just get the (bleep) out of here?”
“Nice talking to you.”
So much for my one-man crusade to foster mutual harmony. If this was a celebration of diversity, then I’ll skip the party. The thing about lofty goals and programs such as those being conducted by Cloud’s National Conference is the pool of attendees is limited to those who care about their fellow citizen in the first place. I don’t suppose the music-loving picnicker I met on Saturday is on their mailing list.
Perhaps we are focusing too much on intellectual issues like affirmative action, anti-segregation lawsuits and equality of economic opportunity when the first level of dialogue needs to be how to establish standards of civility and a way to lessen the coarseness with which we are treating one another. One recurring statement from people who live in white segregated suburbs is that “it is only natural for people to want to live with others who are like them.” Racism, they maintain, is not a skin-color condition but a lack of behavioral common ground.
To be sure, race relations is a complex and sensitive issue and we could all use more education about each other’s perspective. But if every conversation about civility turns to racial finger-pointing, then finding the solutions isn’t going to be a walk in the park.
May 1, 1998