Monday, August 30, 2010

Are We Finally Ready for an Honest Discussion on Race?

I appreciate the opportunity now laid before the American people to have a long overdue discussion on race. Prior opportunities like these have come and gone but, pardon my skepticism, I still don't think many of us are willing to commit to it. Doing so would explode a variety of myths, particularly ones held by those who enjoy patting themselves on the back for a job well done. Jobs this complex cannot be undone by one movement alone.

For example, Katrina's aftermath revealed to many how pervasive poverty still was in this country and how closely tied it still is to skin color. As a native Southerner, I have to say I failed to understand how those in other parts of the country could have been so clueless and ignorant of this simple fact. All one had to do was visit New Orleans and stray not too far off of the beaten path. More perceptive souls could have seen through even the most presentable parts of town. I appreciate the Civil Rights Movement for what it accomplished, but growing up where I did, I've seen the impact of re-segregation in the form of white flight. I've also seen a thousand power struggles between white suburbs and black urban centers over resources, planned developments, and control of just about anything people can control.

Whenever the subject of racial division came up, a mentor of mine often invoked this analogy. Envision the keyboard of a piano, he'd say. Look at the positioning of the keys. White keys inhabit certain areas of the keyboard, as do black keys. White keys are of one length and shape and black keys are of another. White keys produce sounds, notes, and tones different from those of black keys and black keys produce sounds, notes, and tones different from those of white keys. This is simply how the instrument is designed.

In order to play a song of great beauty, a skilled musician knows, through practice, listening, and observation precisely what combination of black notes and white notes will sound tuneful together. A chord, for example, is itself a marriage of different notes struck at the same time to produce one precise, desired sound. Chords regularly comprise pairings of different sounds in different keys that, by themselves alone, would be unspectacular. Together, of course, they sound fuller and more vibrant. Piano music is a balance between keys of music and physical keys that exist on the instrument itself.

It should never be forgotten, however, that black notes and white notes are not the same and never will be. They don't live side by side on the keyboard in perfect harmony. A novice pianist can easily produce discordant sounds and auditory train wrecks. Even a master of the instrument would concede that black keys and white keys have different functions within a piece of music. The solution then, would seem to be completely in how one plays the chords and strategically uses that which appears to be different up front in order to build something that is bold, compelling, and memorable.

I don't believe we'll ever have a color-blind society, nor do I think that it should be our ultimate goal. Both cultures are very different. Ironically we've influenced each other to a great extent, but we've interacted actively only when necessary. Both groups have preserved their own unique identity and I, for one, find nothing wrong with that. So, how do we find a way to combine a stately waltz with the sheer playfulness of a ragtime melody? Up front, there may seem nothing remotely similar between us, but if we look closer, we might find more in common than meets the eye.

Reform never stops. The need for real change never ceases. As I conclude, I'm reminded of a particularly damning quip of Peter Cook's in a sketch included as part of the early 1960's comedy troupe, Beyond the Fringe. I may be paraphrasing a bit.

Q: Isn't there an awful lot of poverty in America?

A: Yes, but you'd scarcely notice it. It's all congregated in the slum areas. It's very nicely done.

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