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By Tom Cushing

Two Views of Race in America: where you stand depends on where you sit

Uploaded: Dec 8, 2014

Two articles bearing on race caught my eye this past week ? even before the deluge of mostly righteous anger that has followed the Garner killing non-indictment. Both came from thoughtful observers of the scene, who start from very different places on the American spectrum. They illustrate just how wide is the divide in our conceptions of race, and how far we have to go to bridge it.

David Brooks grew up in Stuyvesant Village, Manhattan, as the son of professors. He schooled at UChicago and studied further in Stanford's Hoover Institution. Writing his regular column in the NY Times, he believes we inhabit a post-racial world ? a place where there's been "a migration away from prejudice based on genetics to prejudice based on class." He suggests that the fascination of the proper gentlefolk in an earlier era with 'slumming' is comparable to the popularity of reality TV's housewives, dynasties and victims of Judge Judy.

Brooks sees a similar "sharp social divide" between those who inhabit "the 'respectable' meritocracy" and those who live beyond it. Characteristics like "executive function, grit and a capacity for delayed gratification" are thought to abound in the crusty uppers, and be largely absent from the lower social strata who are seen to be "disorganized ? violent and scary."

He then states that "(t)his class prejudice is applied to both white and black poor, whose demographics are converging ?. Every civil rights issue is now also an economic and social issue." From his vantage, the national conversation on race that has been called-for post-Ferguson, really needs instead to be a common project to improve social mobility for everyone, citing President Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative. Ironically, 'MBK' is intended to primarily benefit at-risk youth, of color.

It seems clear that from where Mr. Brooks comfortably sits, social issues have transcended traditional notions of race, in a "let's all make an effort to just get along" kind of way.

Chris Rock tends to see the world much more starkly in terms of black and white. Also a New York product, he grew up mostly in another Dutch-themed neighborhood, Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant. Mr. Rock came up from mean circumstances, in which color meant getting your tooth pulled by a veterinarian (via the back door lest the genteel clientele be discomfited). I have always considered him to be an astute observer of the American culture, albeit hilariously. His brand of humor cuts with a sharp edge; his audiences nod in agreement as much as they slap their knees. His language is often direct and profane, but not gratuitously so ? it is a projection of his particular American heritage.

In a wide-ranging interview in New York magazine, he muses about doing a special on race ? with no black people. "When we talk about 'race relations' in America, or 'racial progress,' it's all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they're not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress is to say they deserve what happened to them before."

Further, on the meaning of the Obama presidency: "To say Obama is progress is saying that he's the first black person that is qualified to be President. That's not black progress ? that's white progress. There's been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. ? My kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. ? The advantage they have is encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let's hope America keeps producing nicer white people."

His success has not made him feel like an Insider in America: "As I told Bill Murray, 'Lost in Translation' is a black movie. That's what it's like to be black and rich. Not that people are mean to you. He's in Tokyo, and it's just weird. He's seems kind of isolated. Look at me -- I'm the only black person here (in a posh NY hotel) who's not working."

Still, he does see some generational progress: "? my kids grew up not only with a black President, but with a black Secretary of State, black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general. My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people."

So, we have two widely contrasting views of race in America. One widely-read person thinks it's 'over,' whereas for another observer it is not only omnipresent, but also very unfinished business ? and isolating, despite material success. It won't surprise any regular readers to learn that I think Rock's a lot closer to 'actual' state of affairs. Race is genetically trivial, but also the first thing we see when we look at another member of our species. It carries baggage for everyone ? consciously and unconsciously. (See Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink" for more on the latter phenomenon).

I don't think that either racism or race-consciousness are capable of being easily or casually overcome. They certainly are not to be dismissed. To me, there's a large element of 'the fish being the last to know he's in the water' in Brooks' benediction. Being Caucasian in this culture means that everybody else adjusts to You.

Regardless of whether you agree, there's another take-away from this contrast ? both views are sincere, and both reflect experiences and learnings acquired over at least half of a standard-issue lifetime. It's important to recognize that bright, capable, sincere people can view the world so differently. I do agree with Brooks' conclusion that the answer in overcoming prejudice (whatever its source) is not just dialogue, but actually working together ? getting comfortable in each other's skin, and being able to view the world through each other's lenses. I'd call that racial progress.