History offers valuable lessons in modern issues of race

Tuesday, August 4, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:02 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A friend, who is a psychologist, has been assembling a display detailing the story of African Americans from slavery through passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She agrees with people such as Attorney General Eric Holder, who said in a televised speech several months ago that we Americans don’t talk enough about the issue of race.

My issue, on the other hand, is that many of us don’t read enough history, and we don’t teach enough of it in many schools to be able to hold intelligent conversations about most aspects of it. That’s why I was bewildered when so much of the media discussed the unfortunate arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates as if his name was as well known as someone who appears on American Idol. How many non-academic types do they imagine read American history books, much less African-American history books on a regular basis? I heard someone mention a few weeks ago that she was reading a book on Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and somebody asked who she was. Personally, I’m convinced that the majority of the population gets most of its information from television, magazinesand the tabloids. And a lot of book readers only read fiction.

Of course, I realize if you happen to live in major cities where prestigious universities are located and the general population is more highly educated, undoubtedly many such conversations have already taken place. But in small cities and towns in the Midwest, I have found that most people, who have not experienced racial diversity on a personal level or have not had personal relationships with people of another race, have attitudes that have been generally shaped by those of the family with whom they lived and grew up with. Unless individuals have been taught to adjust to whatever situations they encounter in life, it is hard for them to accept people who don’t share their same beliefs and behavior.

It is certainly true that most African-Americans over 50 years old have either had or know someone who has had an unfavorable experience with law enforcement. Fortunately, these incidents seem to be decreasing as police become more educated and undergo more sensitivity training. Old habits die hard, of course, and every now and then an African American runs into someone from the old school, and such things as "driving while black" become serious crimes. I still occasionally encounter people from that dark old school, but they are gradually fading from the screen.

I agree with those who look upon the incident with Mr. Gates as a “teachable” moment, and I think it is truly unfortunate that there are so many people in public positions who want to use this occurrence as an opportunity to make trouble. Those of us who went through the race riots and uprisings of the 1960s know how easily racial tensions can be triggered and are always anxious to derail them. Many whose lives and circumstances were never touched by those events seem to view them from afar as exciting and have no problem trying to recreate them.

Undoubtedly, some will use this occasion to try to bridge the gap in race relations. Most of these people, though, will be among those who need it the least. Those in educational institutions who overlook the opportunity are really the problem because they don’t recognize that many of those with whom they come in contact on a daily basis harbor deeply rooted prejudices that need to be addressed.

Frankly, I’m grateful for all those hours of sensitivity training I endured in the 1960s. I feel they have made me a better person because feeling other people’s pain is today a natural process for me. I don’t even have to think about it.

Now that Professor Gates has become a household name, I hope people who had never heard of him before will take time to study his works and understand the contributions he has made to fostering a better world. I would also hope that all law enforcement departments who deal with people of different races and cultures would take this chance to work on upgrading their sensitivity courses.

Let’s face it, there are always going to be people who bully and torment others who are different from themselves. And there are always going to be people whose life experiences have forever affected the way they view the world.

It is up to the rest of us to make the difference, those of us who want to live in a place where it is safe to be human. So, let’s dig in.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling her at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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