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April 2, 2008 > Now about that conversation on race, where to begin?

Now about that conversation on race, where to begin?

By Adam Geller, AP National Writer

So, we're going to get honest about race this time? Let's get started then.

If only it were that simple.

We've had time to digest Sen. Barack Obama's call for a new, and more frank, examination of the ``complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked our way through.'' Plenty of people, including some from opposite sides of the ideological fence, heard something in that speech that spoke to their hearts.

But a period of reflection makes clear that, when the power of rhetoric fades, we're conflicted not just about race, but even how to talk about it.

Candor can help, some say; others worry fresh honesty will inflame old tensions. And who is qualified to join in this conversation? It depends whom you ask. Is this only a black-white thing, or is that too limited? Can different generations, with different experiences, hear each other on this issue?

To some it sounds like a conversation _ or an argument _ they've been having or hearing all their lives, and one that started long before.

We live by a Constitution that began, ``We the People,'' but declared black slaves worth only three-fifths as much as whites. From the Lincoln-Douglas faceoffs of 1858, which focused largely on what to do about slavery, to the most recent debate over renewing the Voting Rights Act, the rift over race and what to do about it has defined us.

``In some ways, he (Obama) is joining in a conversation already in progress,'' says Kareem Crayton, a professor of law and politics at the University of Southern California.

It's been a decade, in fact, since we set out to have the last national conversation on race. Consider where we are as we wonder how to embark on the next one.

Now is the time to wrestle with race again, says John Hope Franklin, the historian named by President Bill Clinton to lead the last effort.

Yes, says Ward Connerly, an activist who faulted the Franklin panel and has long pushed to end race-based affirmative action, it's time for Americans to level with themselves and each other about race and the legacy our attitudes have created.

So, these past antagonists agree now? Only on the desirability of introspection. They still sharply disagree on how to wrangle with the issue that has vexed the United States since even before it was established.

To many, the conversation on race is one we've never really invested with enough candor or willingness to listen.

That's clear to Jill Williams, former executive director of the Greensboro, N.C., Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed to review the decades-old killing of five activists by the Klan.

In New York now, Williams says people hear about her experience and marvel that ``racism remains so deeply ingrained in the South, and I say, 'Oh I think it's very much present here in New York,' and they look at me with shock.''

Others say we need to have a conversation, but that focusing just on race, or only on tensions between blacks and whites, would be too simplistic and too divisive.

``The first thing we think about is color and that seems to negate anything else,'' says Rodney Cooper, a professor at the Charlotte, N.C., campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary who previously worked across race lines in the men's evangelical group Promise Keepers.

``Let's talk about who's going to be talking about what.''

The Obama speech didn't come close to answering that question. But it still gave people plenty to think about, with a poll by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News finding the public divided on whether Obama had said enough to explain his own feelings on race. The speech quickly became the most discussed video on YouTube, viewed more than 2 million times in less than 48 hours.

But, framed by their experiences, people took away very different things and offered responses that had clearly been percolating for some time.

Jay Love, a state legislator in Alabama, opposed a resolution last year apologizing for slavery because he disagreed with ``apologizing for something that I didn't have a part of.'' Love is white and from Montgomery, a civil rights battleground. Growing up, race and it's connection to political power were always part of the conversation, he says.

But unlike his parents, raised in a segregated world, Love says by the time he reached school, the student body was nearly evenly split between whites and blacks. His generation and the one that has followed are dealing with each other across race every day, and to begin a new round of highly charged debate about the past will not help move those relationships forward, he says.

``I think that we've discussed it too much, to tell you the truth,'' says Love, now running for Congress. ``If we have this conversation, what gets accomplished? That's what I want to know. To what end?''

It's necessary medicine, people like Williams respond.

The commission she led in Greensboro was formed by citizens to take a new look at what happened in 1979 when five organizers of an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally were killed by Klansmen and Nazi sympathizers. Some put part of the blame on the city police department, which chose not to patrol the rally. The new reconciliation group sought city backing, but the city council split along racial lines. Despite that, it compiled an extensive report.

Such scrutiny, even when it exposes festering tensions, has value, Williams says. But she doubts a broad national discussion will do the same.

``A generic dialogue on race isn't going to do it,'' she says. ``We have gotten to the point where we know the right things to say, the wrong things to say... Where we're going to do something is if we talk about specific events,'' like the Greensboro rally.

At 93, Franklin has witnessed plenty of such events. Everyday details of racism that defined his Tulsa boyhood remain vivid: he recalls, for example, how he wanted to go to an opera house where blacks were not allowed, save for a single section with almost no view of the stage. ``We've almost come to a position,'' he says, ``where at least I can live like a human being without climbing up some back step.''

But the incremental change only proves the value of the conversation we've long been having and the need to keep having it, he says.

Reflecting on Clinton's race panel, which was derided by critics, Franklin says, ``It was clear to me that we couldn't get very far and we didn't get very far and I was very much distressed over the way in which the country reacted to what we were trying to do.

``I think this is a better time.''

The irony is that he and Connerly find a bit of agreement there.

Connerly is known chiefly for his push to remove race-based preferences in California university admissions, hiring and contracts. He sounds almost a little surprised to find that Obama's speech plucked such an internal chord.

For him, though, it's an invitation to self-examination. A broad conversation might ignore the fact that the American life today is much more complex than divisions between two races, he says. He wonders how we'd structure the conversation, or who'd be part of it.

Still, Connerly, who is black, says the value of personal honesty is that it might move people, particularly blacks, forward rather than looking back.

``There are a lot of black people who are angry and black people have to get beyond that. You can't walk around with anger for the rest of your lives. As a country we have to deal with that,'' he says.

Author Tom Wolfe, who described the contortions of people trying to reconcile themselves with race in books like ``Radical Chic'' and ``Bonfire of the Vanities,'' sees it differently. A national conversation might work, he says, if the premise is to find ways to bring people into harmony.

``But if it's candor we're talking about, that's not so great,'' says Wolfe, who is white. ``Candor is a form of madness and it's an ever-failing source of ill-will for everybody from husbands and wives to nations. Don't try it.''

Chang-Rae Lee, author of books including ``Native Speaker,'' that examine the lives of Korean-Americans as societal outsiders, backs a wide-ranging discussion of race, but has a different worry.

``Part of me fears such discussions might get hijacked (like everything else) by demagogues and race-baiters for their own purposes, and actually cause greater harm,'' Lee says in an e-mail.

Cooper, a black professor at an overwhelmingly white seminary, believes the solution may be in how we direct ourselves. In Promise Keepers, members consistently reminded themselves of the faith connecting them, even when race might have divided.

``Let's talk about what we have in common, common values, rather than what makes us different,'' he says.

Time, though, has shown it's not easy to begin that conversation.

Hours after Obama spoke, a white man and a black man sat across from each other, trying to pick through the minefield of prejudices in a search for common ground _ and a few laughs.

``OK, car stereos,'' said the white guy, comedian Jon Stewart. ``A lot of times when you guys are driving down the street, it's really loud. And we hate that.''

The black guy, comedian Larry Wilmore, turned to the anger he feels when distrustful storekeepers watch him like a suspect. He'd worked too hard to be treated this way.

``We've all had to work, Larry!'' a mock-indignant Stewart replied. ``My family came to this country with nothing. They worked in factories. They worked as taxi drivers.''

``Oh, you mean when your ancestors CHOSE to come here!'' Wilmore retorted.

The audience emitted a giant ``Ohhhhhhhh,'' and, for one pregnant moment, turned quiet.

``You know,'' Stewart offered, as if the thought just occurred to him, ``maybe it's hard to see the world from a different experience from your own.''

It made for a decent punchline. But it worked as comedy because it turned on a bit of truth: Trying to have a conversation about race can be downright painful.

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