An editorial in Richmond's Times-Dispatch, the dominant newspaper in the city I now call home, reminds me why I'm so skeptical about the idea of a national conversation on race.
It was about the death last week of 98-year-old former U.S. Sen. Harry F. "Little Harry" Byrd Jr., a descendant of Virginia's most prominent dynasty whose cheeks, the editorial assured us, "glowed russet and red." He was also, the newspaper went on to say, a man of character and charm who "aligned himself with unfortunate sentiments."
Unfortunate sentiments, indeed! Byrd was a leader of one of the most vicious assaults on racial justice in U.S. history, the so-called massive resistance campaign designed by his equally bigoted father, Harry F. Byrd Sr., one of the architects of the infamous "Southern Manifesto." It involved shutting down public schools that agreed to desegregate and subsidize a network of so-called segregation academies by providing tuition grants to white students. It used state funds - including taxes collected from African-Americans - to give white kids an education while leaving many blacks to fend for themselves.
Equating Byrd's participation in this racist crusade with "unfortunate sentiments" is like comparing Godzilla to the GEICO Gecko. Being a segregationist was not, as the Times-Dispatch seems to imply, merely a blot on the career of a public-spirited politician with a reputation for rectitude, personal integrity and fiscal restraint. It was the bedrock of his political philosophy.
Nor was massive resistance simply an example of how otherwise "good people subscribed to scurrilous views and inflicted grave harm," as the editorial blandly opines. It enjoyed the support of Virginia's power structure, including influential newspapers like the Times-Dispatch itself. It was at the very heart of the system of white supremacy and racial oppression that has been embedded in our nation's political, legal and social systems since the United States was founded.
A few years ago the Times-Dispatch apologized for its support of massive resistance. Byrd never did. Any fair and objective summation of Byrd's career would not sugarcoat that reality. It should have been the first line in that editorial, not an afterthought.
Which brings me back to why this editorial reinforced my skepticism about a national conversation on race. Simply put, it's because I just don't think most white folks are ready for one.
Although a significant number of whites are finally willing to admit that white supremacy is an inextricable part of American history, their influence is dwarfed by the clout of conservative forces still addicted to the exploitation of racial resentment for political gain. A key part of their strategy is to ignore the extent to which racist public policies - developed by politicians like Byrd during slavery and segregation and their aftermath - explain the sorry condition of so many blacks even today.
This information is easily available, but many whites prefer not to know it. They'd rather not delve into the history that explains why so many blacks are still herded into impoverished, hypersegregated neighborhoods, or why they still pay more than whites for everything from groceries to mortgages. They'd rather believe in nonsense like commentator Bill O'Reilly's sociological hypothesis about the supposed inferiority of black culture. As Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic Monthly put it in an insightful posting three years ago, "Expecting an American conversation on race in this country, is like expecting financial advice from someone who prefers to not check their bank balance."
Blacks, too, practice deliberate denial about racial issues. Some of us don't like to admit that way too many of our communities are plagued by self-defeating behavior that would not disappear if every vestige of white racism were abolished. White people are not the cause of all our problems, but you'd never know that if you listened to some of the talk at the barbershop.
The sad truth is that we've been having a national conversation about race since before the nation was founded. There are few topics, except maybe sports and sex, that obsess us as much.
But there's a reason that all this yakking hasn't yielded more in the way of understanding and racial justice - and it's not black denial. It's too many white people's lack of candor. A lot of them don't like to admit the advantage they still enjoy because of their color. Too many of them, like the editorialist at the Times-Dispatch, prefer to whitewash the facts because telling the truth about racial injustice would oblige them to do something about it. Until more of them are ready to do that, there's not much to talk about.