In his remarks during the Department of Justice African American History Month program, Attorney General Eric Holder accused us of being a nation of cowards in things racial. He said we must begin to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us. I am not a coward. I simply do not believe that it is possible to talk about race without been racist. How might one man speak of race without inadvertently implying that he speaks for his entire group? How might a black man speak about race without condemning all whites for the wrongs of a few? How do we talk about race without reinforcing the notion that blacks have been and will continue to be victims until whites decide to liberate them? How do we talk about race without reinforcing the notion that whites are being asked to give up something that is rightfully theirs to give or to keep?
Mr. Holder suggested that we must have a basic understanding of one another in order to respect one another. He said this makes the study of the history of black America essential. Black history is certainly as worthy of study as the history of any other people. We all have an interest in insuring that when history is taught, it is taught without the systematic omission of the contributions of any people who have shaped our great nation. But many people-including me-are not interested in or do not have the time to read history books.
In sixth grade my teacher, who I remember being above average in other respects, often left the room after assigning pages for us to read in our history book. I loved school but I remember reading my history book was among my worst times in education. Perhaps my teacher had the same aversion for the study of history that I acquired and so she didn't teach it with the same enthusiasm she gave to other subjects. Or perhaps I was just never going to enjoy history under any circumstances. I was always drawn to mathematics. I enjoyed the way mathematics was open to easy learning. I appreciated the way I could read a few paragraphs and then start working problems. The more problems I worked the better I understood the theory being presented. When there was a test, I could rely on what I had learned. But the study of history is not structured for true learning. It is basically rote memorization of names, places, and dates. Preparing for a history test requires cramming many facts into your head and hoping that you retain enough to get a decent grade. Of course, I learned a lot of important history as I passed through school and continue to learn today; but I doubt I will read another history book before I die.
God save us if we truly cannot respect people who are different from us until we have read their history. With the increasing level of diversity we encounter in the workplace, in our schools, in our places of worship, and in places where we shop, dine, or enjoy our diversions, the task would be too daunting. A much more practical approach would be to treat everyone we meet as though we know that he wants and deserves the same respect and kindness that we demand for ourselves. This is not a new concept; it goes back to the message God gave to Moses.
Blacks stand in the way of ending racism as much as anyone else. We still cling to our own stereotypes of other groups as well as of ourselves. We continue to pass these stereotypes to our children even though no group has suffered because of racism more than we have. Just as in 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us of the "fierce urgency of now" and of the pitfall of "the tranquilizing drug of gradualism," we must sacrifice starting now the comfort we have taken in our own racism to instead help lift our nation to the "solid rock of brotherhood."
As one nation we recently elected our first black president. As one nation we must continue to press forward-without looking back to past wrongs-to build the nation that Dr King inspired us all to dream of: a nation where race is never the criterion for any choice we make, a nation where we greet every person with the love and acceptance with which we greet those who look just like us.