To take one snapshot from the polling:
“A CNN/ORC survey in October found that 54 percent of Americans believe relations between blacks and whites have gotten worse since Mr. Obama became president. An ABC-Washington Post poll in July showed 63 percent of Americans saying race relations were generally bad, compared with 36 percent when Mr. Obama took office.”
Our first reaction when we hear such information is to ask, “Well, who dunnit?” Who is to blame for the worsening of race relations (or at least the perceived worsening)? Once the question is asked, the commentariat roars with righteous indignation at various politicians, parties, and policies.
We can go on and on, much as they do on the cable news networks. The problem with all of this scapegoating, however, is that we allow little time to reflect on what the polling actually says. Most people believe that race relations are bad and are getting worse. Even if there was a way to prove such a broad perception true or false, the fact remains that people are increasingly discouraged by the racial climate in our country.
As well they should be. Forget the blame-casting and problem-solving for just a moment and reflect on what poor race relations do to our society. When President Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech, he was referring to the division of the country between free and slave states. Yet his main point abides; such profound divisions cannot remain entrenched in American culture. They in essence create two tribes of Americans, which renders the American idea of unifying ideals merely an American illusion.
Perceptions regarding racial conditions also feed upon themselves. Not only do they often lead to casting blame for inciting the divisions, but often to castigating one side of the perceived division in particular. If you believe that race relations have deteriorated and are asked to give an example of the deterioration, you will likely reply with the rash of police shootings (predominantly white on black) or with the increase in rioting (predominantly black). Even as you’re identifying the problem, you are thinking in broad, sweeping categories of race that leads to greater prejudice and the dehumanizing of individuals.
We are told that black lives matter. We are told that all lives matter. Oh, and don’t forget that blue lives matter. All of these claims are claims for innate individual dignity. Neither blacks nor police are monolithic entities. Each life matters and each life lost, regardless of the circumstances, is a tragedy. Indeed all lives matter, but we should recognize that such a beautiful ideal is often not matched in reality. Instead of appreciating the truth of these mantras, they are exchanged back and forth like insults, further dividing groups who are essentially making the same claim.
If we want to do justice to the perception that race relations are worsening, we will first grieve over that fact. We will grieve that in addition to cultural divisions and political polarization, we get sucked into divisions that strike at the innate dignity of man. And instead of saying that this is a result of President Obama’s divisiveness or Republican racism, we can look at our own hearts. We can examine whether we think is primarily a “black problem” or a “white problem,” and own the fact that it is “my problem.”
Then we can get to work.