The National Conversations on Race which have been taking place all over the country these past few years are enlightening, illuminating, cathartic, informative and inclusive.
And they accomplish very little.
I've been to almost a dozen of these race conversation panels, most recently the Third Annual at the Aetna, co-hosted by the National Conference for Community and Justice. Again moderated by former Hartford state senator Sanford Cloud, Jr., the conversationalists included Pratt & Whitney president Karl Krapek, Magic Johnson's business partner Kenneth Lombard and Simsbury First Selectman Mary Glassman. The topic was how to better include minorities in the realm of economic development.
If you've never been to one of these discussions, here's the highlight reel. They all go pretty much the same:
WHITE GUY: We need to be better about being more inclusive in our industry.
BLACK GUY: That sounds good, but we've been hearing that a long time and 95% of CEO's are still white men.
WHITE WOMAN: Women are under represented, too.
BLACK WOMAN: Tell me about it. I'm black and a woman. The fact that I'm successful enough to be on this panel is beside the point.
WHITE GUY: We need to do better.
HISPANIC GUY: Hey, this isn't just a black and white thing. We're the largest growing minority in America and soon we'll be the largest.
ASIAN GUY: We're in this as well. Asians are the invisible minority.
EVERYONE: [Various statements using the words "empowerment" and "celebrating diversity."]
WHITE GUY: We need to do better.
It's not that the subject isn't important or these participants don't mean well and credit should go to them for trying. But sooner better than later, action has to take the place of talk.
Glassman deserves some praise for stressing the importance of the suburbs staying connected to Hartford, maybe not the most popular sentiment in Simsbury. "If the City of Hartford dies, so do the suburbs," she said.
I asked her what she meant by that, since for the last ten years Hartford has been losing businesses and population while the same graph lines in Simsbury have gone straight up. She said sharing in Hartford's problems was "just the right thing to do."
Then she offered to build some low-income housing on Hopmeadow Street. Gotcha -- just kidding.
No one could expect her to make such an offer. Though most white people would like to do something about segregation, the reality is that if there is such a thing as a monolithic power structure, it won't change until it can derive a tangible economic benefit from doing so.
The River Jordan of racial isolation is deep and wide, but it has been crossed by both Michael Jordan and Vernon Jordan because they were better than anyone else, black or white, at what they did. Was it harder for them than it would have been for similarly talented white people? Absolutely. Just as it was harder for Italians and Jews than it was for the English Protestants who preceded them.
A favorite story about racial integration involves the University of Alabama and their football team under legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. In 1970, long after the Civil Rights Act, "Bull' Conner and the National Guard, Bama's football team was still all-white. The season was just beginning and hopes ran high for a national championship. Then they played USC.
The Trojans had a pretty talented running back that year a guy named Sam "Bam" Cunningham (later a New England Patriot). Cunningham ran through the Bama line like it was bolted to the ground and USC crushed Alabama's championship hopes 42-21. Another USC runner named Clarence Davis also had a great game. Davis was from Birmingham, Alabama.
"Bear" Bryant decided it was time to integrate his team. Whatever problems he had with diversity suddenly became worth overcoming. [This story has been told and re-told many times and the running back is often mis-identified as O.J Simpson I got the straight scoop from Taylor Watson at the Bear Bryant Museum].
Progress in racial matters happens because excluded people make it worthwhile for them to be included. As much as they might desire integration on some intellectual level, white people choose to live in all-white communities like Simsbury because they associate minorities with a whole pathology of social problems they would rather not have as part of their daily lives. Some of this is a distorted perception borne of unfamiliarity, but some of it is accurate. When black schoolchildren start showing the same kind of dedication to their studies as some of them apply to basketball, white parents in the suburbs will knock each other over in a rush to bus these kids into their districts. The same is true for Hispanics, who lead the nation in dropout rates.
One of the things you always hear at the race discussions is how many African- American males are in prison and how incarcerating them costs more than tuition at Harvard.
True, but Harvard, Yale and Princeton are competing fiercely for the minority students who meet their academic standards. Show me a kid who gets top grades in an urban school and I'll show you a kid who's going to get a scholarship.
Similarly, in corporate America, inclusion has to be shown as a road map to profit. And white people can't or won't make that demonstration. If, for example, Coca- Cola isn't interested in hiring African-Americans for its corporate offices other than as maintenance people then African Americans should stop buying the product, loudly and publicly. Coke would get enlightened quickly, or else Pepsi would.
That these conversations are somewhat stilted and not terribly productive should not distract from their crucial subject matter. There is no greater threat to the future of the American republic that the possibility of a race war. Thirty years ago, our cities exploded in violence. Today, almost two generations later, the descendants of that revolution are more isolated, more disenfranchised and better armed than their predecessors.
If the fate of a loser like Rodney King could set Los Angeles on fire, think what might result if there if there were a genuine cause to riot.
One of the frustrations of American political and social discourse is the notion among ideologues that if they can just talk enough, the other side will see the light. It ain't gonna happen that way. It's time for an agenda: This is what we can do, this is what you have to do and the rest is up to the individual. As they taught us in law school: If both sides walk away from the table unhappy, you probably made the best possible deal.
We've talked the talk, now we should walk the walk.
January 21, 1999