Sunday, September 30, 2012

Race, a cartoon, and a missed conversation

It’s probably smart to begin with a disclaimer: We need to talk more about race. We need to talk about its role in the education we provide, the health care we offer, the jobs that still can be elusive to blacks. Whether you want to see it or not, race still finds it way into lending and housing and the administering of justice. It’s real. We need to talk more about it.

Or maybe we just need to do a much better job of it.

This week, Observer cartoonist Kevin Siers decided to poke his pen at the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. The team and quarterback Cam Newton have been playing below expectations, and there’s been some murmuring about Newton performing his standard touchdown dance – pretending to pull his jersey apart to reveal Superman’s “S” – when trailing badly in the Panthers’ most recent game.

So Siers did a cartoon mashup of sorts: A player with “Panthers” on the front of his helmet pulls his jersey apart to reveal the decidedly less fierce Hello Kitty. A plus B equals a clever C.

Some fans didn’t like the joke. They complained about criticizing a second-year quarterback so harshly, especially one who’s brought the buzz back to Bank of America Stadium. Fair enough.

Then, on Thursday morning, ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith took it a step further on air. He noted, somberly, that Cam Newton is black. He pointed out, helpfully, that the Charlotte Observer is in the South. “It makes me uncomfortable,” he said, arranging the letters together without actually saying what they spelled. Let’s do it for him: Racism.

We should note that Smith, along with others who subsequently said the cartoon was racist, didn’t say the drawing itself contained racist cues. The problem was the criticism of Newton, a black man, by an editorial page in the South. A plus B equals an ugly C.

The response was predictable – complaints about blacks seeing racism in everything, followed by complaints of intentional white blindness to race. It’s where these conversations end up – with each side pointing to the other as evidence of their rightness and fuel for their outrage.

Then there are the others, the ones who know we need to talk honestly about race. Especially now. Especially in cities like Charlotte that find themselves resegregating in schools and neighborhoods. They know that our differences, which once brought such collective promise, seem poised again to pull us further apart.

But embarking on that conversation means trusting that it will be a conversation. If you’re black, you fear that bringing up race will elicit that exasperated sigh from whites who believe the fairy tale that racism is a relic, that we’d all get along if we stopped bringing up the reasons we’re not getting along. And if you’re white, you worry that a misstep – or even some candor – will bring that wagging finger. You worry that disagreement will bring that name you don’t ever want to be called.

Here’s an example: In a web video this week for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Walter Dalton, North Carolina blacks talk about how policies favored by Republican candidate Pat McCrory aren’t friendly to them. Those policies include mandatory voter ID and cuts in pre-Kindergarten programs, so it’s an appropriate point for Dalton supporters to make.

But in the video, the speakers and policies are emphasized with a backdrop of pictures from the Civil Rights era. The message is unmistakable – McCrory as today’s George Wallace or Orval Faubus. A legitimate policy debate gets shoved to the inflammatory fringe. It’s done everywhere by both parties. Who wants to get caught in that kind of crossfire?

This year, new Charlotte schools superintendent Heath Morrison wants to try. He says Charlotte needs to have a “courageous conversations” on the role of race in academic success and failure. In Reno, Nev., and Montgomery County, Md., he brought in consultant Glenn Singleton, the author of a book by that name.

Morrison is right. We need to have those conversations. We need to talk about the challenges we face and the obstacles we place in front of each other. But to do so, we need to take the discussion back from the people who see racism everywhere or nowhere at all. As this week showed again, we’re a lot better at pointing than talking.