I Don’t Want to Talk About It.

Is it possible to be thrown out of a tight-knit group that one was instrumental in forming? I have a chance to find out.

I am in a fabulous book club. I got the group rolling four or five years ago by recruiting a handful of close friends to the venture. On a rotating schedule, one person chooses a book, another cooks a meal and a third leads the discussion. We read all kinds of books, and our subsequent discussions are augmented by fine food and wine. We are just as competitive about the consumables as we are about the selections of, and our opinions about, the books.

Considering that the book club is small, and consists exclusively of people who are sociologically similar (we are all prosperous men, 55+) the points of view represented are widely divergent: our political and religious orientations, and our intellectual interests, differ sharply. These contrasts, tamed by our friendships with each other, make our conversations lots of fun.

But I am thinking of skipping, or, to be more precise, boycotting our next meeting.

The book that we are supposed to read and discuss is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I know enough about Mr. Coates’s views, including his famous essay, The Case for Reparations, to be sure  that I am not interested in patronizing his work; in my estimation, he makes his living from race-based discord, exacerbating the problem in the process – a more literate version of Al Sharpton.

Our President, Ta-Nehisi Coates and many others are quite interested in lecturing us about America’s alleged institutional racism. I am not interested in engaging in what they would characterize as a Dialogue on Race. In my view, there’s way too much focus on race these days, and not nearly enough on character or culture.

Race consciousness – of any sort, but most certainly including the kind implicit in the idea of reparations and the facts of “affirmative action” and government-mandated quotas (insofar as those latter two are distinguishable) – is racism. To the extent that we divide people into groups and put those groups into competition with each other for resources or preferments, we take individuals and turn them into members of opposing teams. Where the factor used for categorizing individuals – skin pigmentation – has exactly nothing to do with individual capabilities, characters or cultures, the categorizations are irrational and pernicious.

(Incidentally, the reason that African-American conservatives like Justice Thomas, Tom Sowell and Ben Carson are called “race traitors”, is that through their behavior they illustrate that an individual’s culture – and politics – need not be determined by his or her pigmentation. The left would prefer that all African-Americans stay in their assigned category.)

Coates believes that much of the wealth behind the American Dream was stolen from his ancestors and other African-Americans, so in his view, feelings of collective guilt on the part of whites, and reparations to African-Americans, would be just. In my view, his perspective that much of America’s wealth springs from the ante-bellum Southern economy, or from Jim Crow laws, is … nuts. What we have today, has virtually nothing to do with the inheritance from the cotton plantations where the overwhelming majority of American slaves worked, or from laws that existed mostly in what were then poor southern states and that have been gone (the laws, that is) for over 50 years.

Redress cannot be given to those who suffered the wrongs of American slavery. America’s slaves have been in their graves for generations. I feel no guilt for the wrongs of American slavery or for Jim Crow; I didn’t commit them. Guilt cannot be inherited – we are born equal in the eyes of God, and before the law (at least, insofar as the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution is upheld).

Even more fundamentally, I do not believe that justice is, or can ever be, group-based or collective. The collective obscures, disempowers and devalues the individual. You and I, Mr. Coates and everybody else – we were all born, live and will die as unique individuals. Our failings are our own, as are our accomplishments. If Mr. Coates was robbed, he should receive recompense from the thief; otherwise, no.

Institutional racism, insofar as it exists in America today, is not of the sort that Coates imagines – it is embedded in government-mandated “affirmative action”, in set-asides and in discrimination against Asian-American ”over-achievers” in college admissions.

Talking about race with the presumption that it is naturally, or in fact, the determinative factor in a whole panoply of decisions made by anything but a small number of bigots, just like actually making decisions about resources, schools and jobs on the basis of pigmentation, only embeds racial strife. It is a means of separating us into opposing teams as a preface to divvying up spoils. Making decisions on such a nonsensical basis obscures the individual differences that result from the decisions that we make –  the decisions that make us who we are. We should, and almost always do, think of people, and deal with them, as the unique individuals that they are rather than on the basis of arbitrary and irrelevant factors like skin pigmentation.

I take it as axiomatic that God loves us all just the same, and that the laws should treat us equally (“We hold these truths…”), but also that how each of us will be – and should be – judged by others depends on the characters, capabilities and cultures we manifest through our own actions – not the actions of our forbears or of others with whom we are arbitrarily grouped. Racial healing will only come when we, in Dr. King’s words (referring to his children):

“… live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

***

No, I don’t want to patronize Mr. Coates’s work, and I refuse to spend an evening discussing Racism, where I think that the whole premise – that we should be or are irrevocably split into teams on an irrational basis – is both divisive (by definition!) and demeaning to individual dignity. That being the case, can I even go to this book club meeting?

It’s a toughie – but what I will not do is pretend to be absent because of a nonexistent scheduling conflict.

 

M.H. Johnston

 

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