Last night I got in a discussion with an acquaintance about race and politics. Although we're separated by about three decades in age, our politics and our race, we are connected by our civility.
My friend stated he was angry the Republican presidential candidates were portraying all African-Americans as "lazy and weak." He went on to say the perception of conservatives is this lack of desire to work is a major cause of the current economic climate we find ourselves in. He was sincere and not trying to goad me into a circular argument.
He was specifically referring to Newt Gingrich's suggestion that programs in urban areas should be aimed at teaching kids about work and the pride of ownership of one's own destiny. Unfortunately, this is what Newt meant, but it's not what he said. Either out of ignorance or a desire to garner attention, Newt uses words that are inflammatory to people who are not fully engaged with him. Because of this, his very worthy messages get lost on those he would most hope would listen to him. This is not leadership, it's politics.
Like it or not (and personally, I don't), our society allows words to have multiple meanings, depending on who is uttering them.
- Ghetto. It's an Italian word that was originally used to describe the section of Venice that was inhabited by Jews. It morphed into a word that means any area of a city inhabited by poor people. Now, to a vast majority of people, it means urban areas predominately inhabited by African-Americans. If you are trying to successfully convey a message, you have to understand what your listeners are going to hear.
- Foodstamp. This one really, really irks me, but to an unfortunately large segment of the US population, this word invokes "African-American." "Welfare" doesn't, but "foodstamp" does. Again, it's incumbent on the messager to either re-define the word or avoid it.
Conservatives wear their frankness and honesty as a badge of honor. In reality, to a vast majority of people who think they disagree with them, their words come across as insensitive and spiteful. I don't make the reality, I just report it.
So when Newt talks about teaching kids that pushing a broom after school is a good thing, what gets heard and regurgitated is that Newt thinks black kids are lazy and dangerous and they should be kept in their places by teaching them janitorial skills. When this slaps Newt in the face like a branch let loose by the person walking ahead of him, this misinterpretation makes him indignant. It happens to all well-meaning conservatives. That's why we fail so often in the arena of ideas.
Maybe we on the Right need to customize our message for people who have been raised on racial division and a constant buzz in their heads that the US and it's white majority are inherently unfair. The racial divide in this country is real and it needs to be addressed. It is a divide of perception unlike the actual horrific divide of the 20th Century, but it is a divide nevertheless. I stated this and mentioned my deep disappointment that Barack Obama has been a miserable failure on this point -- and my words were met with solid agreement.
My acquaintance then went on to say that "successful people, black, white, Asian, and Hispanic, are afraid" of raising up poor blacks for fear of losing their own success.
I replied that I was sad to see that we live in two completely different Americas, and this is where the communication began to break down. It stayed civil, but my assertion that there simply aren't groups of people in this country actively keeping other people in poverty to protect their own wealth was met with a derisive laugh. I asked him to think about the possibility this was a perception that was removed from reality through years of propaganda from people who earn their livings being race baiters, and that got us nowhere.
Because I believe what I believe, it's up to me to figure out a way to communicate my message in a way that will get it across to someone who is firm in his belief that I am wrong. It is not his responsibility to look beyond my words to find their true meaning.
This is good advice for all of us...