Martin Luther King Day each year seems a good time to discuss race relations.
Last summer, I interviewed an African-American woman who described Oak Park as a good example of "controlled racism." At first, I was taken aback?#34;until I realized you can take that comment two ways.
One is that Oak Park isn't nearly as welcoming and inclusive as our reputation for tolerances suggests, and that only a thin veneer covers a seething cauldron of racism, which might erupt at the slightest provocation. Some black Oak Parkers may believe that, though I'm not sure how many.
I'm no authority on African Americans or African-American culture, but based on my limited experience and observations, I would venture a few generalities about the state of race relations:
African-Americans are afraid of whites just as whites are afraid of African Americans.
Whites have no clue that much of the way blacks relate to them is based on fear (and vice versa).
African-Americans don't have much faith in any system created by the white power structure.
White parents could do more to help African American parents learn how to navigate a system that feels foreign and intimidating. This especially applies to the schools.
These observations don't apply to all whites and blacks, of course?#34;just enough to cause our interactions to frequently misfire.
African Americans have plenty of historical reasons to not trust whites. Slavery, after all, is the crucible out of which black culture emerged, and bigotry isolated that culture so effectively we've only just begun to interact enough to allow a proper merging to take place. Not surprisingly, African Americans have mixed feelings about "assimilating" into a predominantly white culture. It feels like cultural genocide even though it's a far more subtle and complicated process, which, in the final analysis, changes both cultures and creates a new one?#34;a better one, we trust.
That's been Oak Park's unstated goal. But we haven't merged. Both sides remain stand-offish. Many black Oak Parkers still don't entirely trust white Oak Parkers. Many white Oak Parkers get frustrated about not being trusted. Generalities again, lots of exceptions noted.
It takes a very long time for a culture forged in slavery to trust the culture of its former oppressor. It takes a long time for individual African Americans, who may not have a lot of experience interacting with whites, to trust them. It's hard for those whites not to take the distrust personally.
But we shouldn't. It's the price we have to pay for previous generations of white Americans who enslaved, then discriminated against black Americans. We shouldn't expect to be easily forgiven. We have to prove ourselves. We have to be willing to reassure African Americans that they have nothing to fear from us. That's not an unfair burden. It's an opportunity. I think we owe them that much.
The thing is, we aren't perfect. We make mistakes. We occasionally offend without knowing or intending it. There's a learning curve, and we're just starting. The same is true of African Americans.
What then is required? Extraordinary patience. The building of trust is a long, slow process. You have to be more than a person of good will. You have to demonstrate good will?#34;consistently. The antidote to fear and prejudice (on both sides) is firsthand experience of good-heartedness in the other. Every exception to our outdated stereotypes slowly disintegrates the walls that separate. Fear and unfamiliarity are the impediments far more often than hatred.
The more we are both willing to interact and learn, the less we have to play our race cards.
Which brings us to the second way you can take the term "controlled racism." In a country that remains far too divided to this day, Oak Park has managed to bring racism, by and large, under control.
That's a remarkable achievement.
We can all take some pride in that. We just can't be content with it.