Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!

A Nation of Cowards

Posted February 19th, 2009 by

Attorney General Eric HolderIt stung in that hotel room in Cape Coast, Ghana when Juanita said (which you can see in the film of our journey, Traces of the Trade) “white people have been cowards.”

It stung to hear the words. It stung because they were true; certainly in my case. I just didn’t know how to talk about issues of race. I certainly didn’t know how to talk about it with people of color.

This week Attorney General Eric Holder, in comments before the Justice Department in regards to Black History Month, said we’ve been “a nation of cowards”, which pretty much includes everyone, when it comes to talking about race relations.

I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with a friend of mine, a woman of color, when she told me that black people–in general–have issues they don’t discuss around white people. Centuries of oppression have resulted in instinctual mistrust that renders certain topics taboo. I get that. It makes perfect sense. She said she knows that white people have secrets that they keep from black folks as well. On this, I was dumbfounded, as was our other friend at the table–a white woman–sitting with us. “White people don’t have secrets,” I said. “I guess we don’t have to. We don’t have to talk about issues of race. So we don’t.”

I remember another encounter during our family journey where two black men disagreed about who has the hardest time talking about issues of race–black folks or white folks.

It’s messy. It’s complicated. There are no easy answers. What I so appreciate about A.G. Holder’s comments is that he so clearly stated that if we want to understand the heart of our country we need to understand our racial soul. We, all of us, simply don’t talk with each other enough about racial issues. When we are willing to be understanding enough, and tolerant enough, of each other we have the opportunity for progress.

“To respect one another we must have a basic understanding of one another.”

Amen, brother.

If you haven’t heard Holder’s words you owe it to yourself to take a few minutes and watch him here.

UPDATE: Beacon Broadside, the blog of my publisher Beacon Press, has cross-posted this blog at their site. Thanks, Jessie!

4 responses to “A Nation of Cowards”

  1. James says:

    It stung to hear the words. It stung because they were true; certainly in my case. I just didn’t know how to talk about issues of race. I certainly didn’t know how to talk about it with people of color.

    I think that's beautifully said, Tom. I certainly have my own issues with race, but this one doesn't resonate as strongly with me; as you know, I grew up talking frankly about race with friends, classmates, roommates and colleagues of all races. I think it's largely just a matter of when and where you and I grew up.

    In my case, it wasn't a paradise by any means, but it didn't look much like the blanket descriptions offered by Juanita or Eric Holder, either. So I think that even people who may relate in part to what's being said can be turned off when such a sensitive topic is broached in such sweeping and absolute terms.

    As usual, however, you manage to phrase the issue in such a way as to pull people into the conversation, whatever their particular experiences with race may have been, and encourage them to explore the ways in which what's being said may hold truth for them.

  2. Tom says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, James. I paused when I re-read my words, "We, all of us, simply don’t talk with each other enough about racial issues," knowing that this sort of sweeping comment may rub some people the wrong way. I respect the fact that different people have had different experiences. At various events I've spoken at I've heard the comment more than once, "Can't we just quit talking about race?"

    Where I come down on this is that I believe most of us, individually and collectively, are well-served when we willingly enter into deeper conversations and relationships with a goal of wanting to understand each other better. The fact that we continue to face so many challenges, injustices, and inequities related to "race" indicates to me that such endeavors are necessary and will continue to be beneficial.

  3. James says:

    I paused when I re-read my words, “We, all of us, simply don’t talk with each other enough about racial issues,”

    I can only speak for myself, Tom, but I didn't hesitate over those words, even though they're exactly the sort of sweeping statement that usually rubs me the wrong way. The reason is that you'd been so careful to qualify what you were saying at the start of the post.

    We're all going to make sweeping generalizations from time to time. I know I do, and I spend a lot of time criticizing such statements. I think the key is that if you make a point of showing that you don't, in fact, believe that everyone's experiences are the same, then people will understand what you mean if your language occasionally slips.

    As for where you come down on this issue, I think we're very much in agreement.

  4. There are more than two races in the United States.
    The first peoples here were of neither of European descent or African descent.

    There is much that is not talked about.
    Much to do with the inception of the birth of this country.
    Much to do with its legal, economic and social constructs, how they evolved, who they were primarily evolved by and who they were evolved to primarily benefit.

    Why is it a matter of bravery to speak from different viewpoints in the first place in our country today?

    That question is at the heart of this topic to me.

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