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Talking about race: Um, you first

Obama's speech called for a conversation that not everyone wants.

March 23, 2008|Stephanie Simon and Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writers

LITHONIA, GA. — How do we start a national dialogue on race?

Charlotte Griffin was at a restaurant one evening when a white woman complimented her on her children's behavior. The stranger may have meant to be kind. But Griffin wondered if she heard a note of condescension -- an assumption, perhaps, that black kids aren't usually so polite.

How do we navigate that minefield?

As a teenager, Stan North went to work on the assembly line at Ford. He made good money. But he noticed that he -- like all the other white guys -- always got the dirty jobs. Seething, he concluded that the boss wouldn't dare give a black man heavy lifting, for fear of being tagged a racist.

How do we acknowledge that anger?

In his recent address on race relations in America -- prompted by his minister's explosive sermons on that topic -- Sen. Barack Obama declared that whites must understand the black experience in America and blacks must appreciate the white perspective. Otherwise, he said, we face a grinding "racial stalemate."

His remarks struck a nerve: More than 4 million people watched the Democratic presidential candidate on live TV, and the speech is now a top video on YouTube, viewed nearly 3 million times.

Preachers and teachers across the country have been trying to figure out how to leverage that interest to launch deep, authentic discussions about race. In some quarters, there's strong interest.

"This is a very good time to put everything on the table," said Abdullah Robinson, 64, a black man who lives in suburban Atlanta. "We don't know nothing about each other, and we've been living together for hundreds of years."

But others don't want any part of a dialogue that starts from the premise that there is a black America and a white America. They don't want to hear about victims and oppressors. It's past time, they say, to move on.

Blacks "bring up the enslavement card way too much," said JoAnna Cullinane-Halda, 64, who just opened a home decor boutique in rural Colorado. "I'm Irish. My people were enslaved as well. But it's far enough in our dark past. We've gone beyond that. Let it go."

The complexities of opening a dialogue on race were evident after a day of long conversations with African Americans in Lithonia, Ga., a suburban haven for black professionals outside Atlanta, and with whites in Franktown, Colo., a working-class town in the hills southeast of Denver.

Carmen Van Kerckhove, co-founder of a diversity consulting firm in New York, described the dynamic this way: "Human beings tend to be really focused on their own oppression, and tend to be less interested in hearing about the oppression of others."

Old resentments

North, 50, grew up in integrated Detroit. He went to school with black friends. He played ball with them, swam with them. Every now and then, fists would fly over a racial insult. Then they'd all go back to hanging out together.

As far as North was concerned, everyone was equal. If anything, he said, blacks were better off because affirmative action gave them a boost into college. His own grades weren't good enough for a scholarship; he ended up building engines at Ford.

A few years in, he tried to get shifted off the heavy jobs -- but his boss, he said, dismissed him with a curt: "You're a white boy. What're you crying about?" North looked around. He noticed that when minorities complained, "they got moved to a different job, because [the supervisors] were afraid of the race card."

Now North has a good job repairing tractors and trailers in Franktown. But when he reflects on his days at Ford, he feels the old resentment.

"I kept hearing: 'Minority this, minority that. Blacks aren't getting this, blacks aren't getting that.' I'm disgusted with it," he said. "OK, fine, they've gotten stepped on for 400 years. Let's give them something [to make up for it] and be done with it, the way we did with the Indians."

He's had enough, he said, of identity politics: "If you're born here, you're an American. Period. Act like an American." A fellow mechanic began listing racial and ethnic groups: African American, Hispanic American, Chinese American.

"It's tiring," North interrupted sharply. "These people had the same opportunities I did. . . . And they want everything handed to them."

Same opportunities? Same schools, same sports teams, yes.

But Wayne Sledge, who is 48 and black, went to an integrated school in Georgia -- and he doesn't remember everything being so equal. Sledge said it was clear that "the white people didn't want the black people in the school." There were bloody brawls. A pep rally was interrupted by a student in a Ku Klux Klan hood. "It was pretty rough," said Sledge.

Pam Miller also went to an integrated school in the mid-1970s, in suburban St. Louis. Her most vivid memories are of terror:

Two white men chasing her with crowbars.

A white boy trying to throw her over the banister at school.

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