Paul R. Lehman, Articles on race in the new Oklahoma Humanities Council magazine miss the boat

May 6, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Posted in American Racism, blacks, Disrespect, equality, Ethnicity in America, fairness, justice, Killings in Tulsa, Media and Race, OHC, Prejudice, public education, Race in America, Tulsa Riot 1921, whites | 2 Comments
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The Oklahoma Humanities Council has just published a Summer 2012 edition of its magazine, “Oklahoma Humanities.” The focus of this edition is Reconciliation: Looking Back, Pushing Forward Conversations on Race.” The publication is very handsome with excellent graphics and a number of articles with a focus on race. The only problem with this focus on race is that it does not move the discussion one iota towards a so-called reconciliation for a number of reasons: no mention of what is being reconciled, why it is being reconciled, and what it will look like.

One of the problems generally associated with any discussion of race in America is that it lacks a clear definition. What people usually discuss are the results or repercussions of social injustices committed against African Americans with race as the primary object. To make matters more confusing, the history of slavery in America is also factored into the discussion. So, when a discussion of race takes place no one knows for certain what is being discussed. For example, one of the articles in the OHC magazine is entitled “A ‘healing journey’ to confront the issues of race and prejudice.” The article includes some excellent pictures of remnants of buildings in Africa associated with early 1500’s to the middle 1800’s African slave trade. This article could have been written in 1960 for the information it provides relative to the title. The ‘journey” belongs to the writers of the article and provides little information for the readers to build on as for as a reconciliation is concerned. The article talks about slavery and racism as a legacy in America.

In order to understand what is not happening in these articles as well as any article that pretends to deal with race in America, we must understand that these articles will all focus on the past and present with no constructive view of the future. No constructive view of the future is possible because the discussions presented in the articles are enclosed in a small circle that can only focus on what is inside the circle. In essence, when the writers of any work on race begin by accepting the premise of race as being factual, the discussion is over because it cannot move beyond that concept.

My point is not meant to criticize the OHC or the writers of any of the articles, but to question their premise of adding something new or different to the discussion on race when in effect they  only offer information about the American past and present that includes slavery’s legacy.  Attempting to reconcile something that is not defined is like trying to answer the question “what makes water wet?” If one does not stop and think about the question first, chances are he or she will make the mistake of trying to answer the question. The fact is about wetness is that it is a condition that can be created by water; it is not a part of water. Water is not the only liquid that can cause wetness. Race and all its derivatives are all based on something that was socially created and based on false premises.

One common mistake involving discussions on race has to do with how it is perceived. Most social historians examine the narrative, history or story on a chronological line with a starting point and indicating times of significant occurrences along that line. By using this method, periods of time can be identified as past and present with emphasis on significant influences along the way. One result of this method is that the various time periods can be seen as separate entities when in fact they are parts on the same narrative. The problem with this approach is primarily because the narrative is interrupted and viewed in segments and each one can be seen as representing  the basic problem. With respect to race, the problems of  Identity, discrimination, prejudice, segregation, injustice, and fairness exists.. These elements , however, are not the problem—it is the acceptance of the concept of race.

For example, let us look at the problem of segregation that was addressed in the Brown v Topeka Broad of Education in 1954. The Supreme Court’s decision was to order desegregation of the schools. What the Court did not examine was the cause of the segregation—the concept of race. So, while the schools began to desegregate, the elements of bigotry and all the associated forms of injustice continued to grow. When each of the forms or derivatives’ of race are taken as the primary problem, then trying to remedy that particular concern does nothing to remedy the cause of the problem. As long as the cause of the problems created by the acceptance of the concept of races is not addressed and challenged, no progress or reconciliation is possible.

What is generally missing from any discussion of race today is an understanding of how the history really exists. Rather than being in a straight line, the history exists in a circle, connected to the past, present and future. John Paul Lederach, author of The Moral Imagination, says it this way, “As the indigenous world view suggests, social meaning, identity, and story are linked through narrative, which connects the remote past of who we are with the remote future of how we will survive in the context of an expansive present where we share space and relationship.”In other words, we must rethink the way we look at history to better understand the social problems caused by our concept of race so we can better understand how to create the remedy for those problems. For example, some people might assume that since slavery happened a long time ago that it has no relevance to them today. The reason for that kind of thinking is the idea of time being associated only with the people living during that time; they fail to understand that time did not stop nor did the influences and legacies created during that time stop, and that their lives represent an accumulation of those influences and legacies. We cannot place time in a capsule—only things with symbolic meanings relative to a time.

The problem for our society today is to try and acquire a better understanding of who we are, where we are, and how do we want to get to the next level. Our having a better understanding of race would be a good starting point, but the discussion must begin with first defining race and then moving beyond it. The articles in the OHC magazine provide some interesting experiences and information relative to race, but then miss the boat completely on the idea of reconciliation.


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  1. The comedian Dave Chappelle did a skit on a blind African American man who thought he was a European American. He continually showed up at white supremacy meetings to support the cause, much to the horror and chagrin of the white supremist. The lie is the “power” of the racial construct. Good intentions as you have said offer no resolution when they are offered in total blindness.


  2. Right. I remember Chappelle having some very prophetic skits that many people took for entertainment value only, when he was trying to teach us something all the time. Sometimes we think that entertainment is just that, and when we do, we lose.


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