Eat the Elephant, Part II: Inches Apart, Separated by Miles

By Cliff Springs

As I mentioned in a previous article, I did not vote for President Obama—but I do have hope that his election will present an opportunity for race relations in this country to finally clear some long-standing hurdles. If you haven’t read Part I yet, please take a moment to do so. In an effort to provoke some meaningful dialogue, I am committed to being as transparent and honest as possible through the course of these conversations.

The following thoughts are actually the initial impetus behind DangWrite. I was so troubled by a conversation I had with a black friend the day after Obama’s election that I knew I had to do something. This blog and these writings are the beginning of this effort, but hopefully will translate into other opportunities to further the issue of race relations.

As I stated, it began the day after the election. I approached one of my employees—who is black and had stated previously that he was supporting Obama—and asked him his thoughts about the election. After a brief discussion, he made a statement that has lingered with me. He said in no uncertain terms that he NEVER thought he would live to see a black president. I asked follow-up questions to make sure he wasn’t exaggerating for effect. No—he meant NEVER. He didn’t believe it was possible in America in his lifetime.

If you’ve read any of the other articles here about conservative philosophy, then you are likely aware of my strong belief in the power of the individual—the idea that we are all capable of far more than we may believe. This co-worker is a college-graduate, politically aware, and well-informed. He’s not a defeatist and not one to let obstacles stay in his way indefinitely.

Yet, here I was, staring in the face of someone who—primarily for reasons of race—had less optimism about the subject than did I. I never had any doubt that I would see a black president in my lifetime. None whatsoever. This meant that I had a greater expectation for my co-worker’s race than did he.

Now, before you fly past this point without digesting it properly, let me ask you to bear with me—my bigger point will become clear. He and I have identical college degrees (same major from the same school), many life parallels (it’s so incredibly mirrored as to be an ongoing joke between us), and we, of course, work together. But I viewed his prospects—and the prospects of other African-Americans—with hope that he didn’t share.

I could’ve understood his doubt more if I were talking to someone incredibly disadvantaged, uneducated, and uninformed. But I wasn’t. We proceeded to have a rather lengthy conversation in which I conveyed to him my disappointment in his answer—not in HIM for giving the answer, but sadness to think that he and others aren’t able to envision an America that is willing to move forward sufficiently on the subject of race any time within the next 40-50 years (his likely lifetime).

I knew I needed to have this same conversation with others. So I proceeded to talk with African-American clients, friends, neighbors, and my best friend, Thomas. Sadly, they all expressed the same sentiment as my co-worker. Even Thomas—my “let-no-obstacle-stop-me” best friend admitted to me that he didn’t expect to see it in his lifetime either.

I was truly stunned. I had to think about this… and think and think. Why was this bothering me so much? It was clearly more than just our differing hopes that was weighing on my mind.

What was the underlying message of their collective doubt? In short, they didn’t believe that white America was willing to make that step now or even decades from now. After all, the black population in this country is a minority, and as such would be dependent on other races—particularly whites—to make a black president a reality. So this doubt was clearly aimed at whites in this country. Was I offended? Could that be the feeling I was experiencing?

No, it was something else.

I thought and thought some more. Then it hit me—hard. There was/is an incredible disconnect of communication and expectation between  black Americans and white Americans. Now, before you say, “Duuhhhhh,” let me explain. The heart of the Civil Rights movement was almost 50 years ago. Most people in this country under the age of 50 have been raised in a non-legally segregated society. We didn’t grow up with separate water fountains, different sections on the bus, and other reprehensible trademarks of past racial inequality. I’m not so ignorant as to fail to acknowledge that there were lingering animosities from that time of cultural change that have taken decades to fade.

But people DO change. Every day, every generation sheds the shackles of the past to embrace that which they know and encounter daily. For almost 50 years, blacks and whites have had no legal distinctions, no separate-but-equal dividers. Artificial divisions exist on both sides, of course, but with the legal barriers removed, I believe that white America as a whole has gotten the message that blacks and whites are very much equal. Please don’t interpret that statement to mean that I believe that prejudice doesn’t exist. If you read Eat the Elephant Part I, you know that I believe that “pre-judging” will always exist in some form. But pre-judging and a willingness to oppress are two very different things.

Most of my closest friends, family-members, and church share a comparable belief system with me. Admittedly, by the numbers, my closest friends are very conservative, mostly Christian, mostly Republican, and a majority are white. According to modern political logic, we are the enemies of minorities—we’re nothing more than southern, narrow-minded bigots. But the truth is, there’s not one of those friends who would hesitate to vote for a black candidate who shares our conservative principles. I say that to point out that it’s not just me. I’m not Mr. Super-Enlightened, one-of-a-kind, racial harmony guy. My friends think the same way I do. If they looked down their noses on other races, then I doubt I would find these friends worthy of my time and affection.

What does this all mean? I think the message that seems to have such trouble being communicated is that a majority of whites in this country have been thinking (perhaps not “saying”), “Yes, we’re equal. We’re ready to move on.” And I think African-Americans either haven’t received that message or might be fearful or hesitant to trust it. I say that not to point fingers in either direction—just to acknowledge the disconnect that seems to be holding us back.

To further complicate this disconnect, a younger generation of white America has no real concept of the way things used to be, and possibly don’t understand the need or feel the obligation to reach across the chasm. Black America—particularly the younger generations—know more about racial strife from what they hear from older family members than from what they have experienced themselves.

What I find so frustrating is that I see an incredible environment for moving forward being squandered—or needlessly delayed. I think we’re just inches apart, but separated by miles. Is it white America’s penance to carry the burden of crossing the bridge? Is it fair for black America to carry all the risk and being told to just trust white intentions? Who goes first? Will it matter to the other side?

I don’t know the answer.

I learned many years ago that nobody wants to be the first person in line to dig into the food at a wedding reception. I remember one wedding where everybody stood around for almost 30 minutes waiting for somebody to go first. I and about 10 other people from around the room decided almost in perfect unison that it had been long enough. As we all took a step in the direction of the table, the rest of the room came charging forward, no longer afraid of being singled out.

My hope is that the racial divide could experience a similar tidal wave—everybody reaching out at the same time. We just might see incredible things happening. These days, when I attend weddings, I am perfectly content to be the guy who starts the food line, knowing that others are happy to follow suit.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Anybody hungry?


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2 Responses to “Eat the Elephant, Part II: Inches Apart, Separated by Miles”

  1. Tom Goldman

    AMEN Clif ! It is difficult to turn back a flood after the flood gates are opened and the flood gates have been opened by local and national political leaders. It seems that it is politically expediant to keep stirring the pot. Fomenting unrest is the profession of some people and as long as those people who keep “Stirring the pot” are held in high regard, the anger and frustation held by so many will continue to fester and will not heal !

  2. jasen

    The way it was described to me by an African-American who is almost our age…”At no point was being President something you could list as something you wanted to be when you grew up without a white OR black person either rolling their eyes or patronizing you with some sort of tap on the head ‘bless your heart style.’ It was beyond the realm of permissible dreams.”

    I couldn’t believe it. Then again…another black person his age has a Louisiana birth certificate says “Race: Negro.” That’s 1974 or so. Not 1954.


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