Thoughts on “Can My Children Be Friends With White People?”

“Donald Trump’s election has made it clear that I will teach my boys the lesson generations old, one that I for the most part nearly escaped. I will teach them to be cautious, I will teach them suspicion, and I will teach them distrust. Much sooner than I thought I would, I will have to discuss with my boys whether they can truly be friends with white people.” These are the words of Ekow Yonkah, professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, written in an op-ed in the New York Times, entitled: “Can My Children Be Friends With White People?”

In the piece, Yonkah bemoans the election of Donald Trump as one of where race is the primary factor of consideration, ergo a vote for Trump is a vote against black people (or non-whites), and a vote for Hillary is presumably a vote for racial minorities. Although he makes some distinction between the white nationalist component of Trump’s coalition and those who supported Trump for economic considerations, it is only slight as he nonetheless declares, “My heart is unbearably heavy when I assure you we cannot be friends.” In fact, so deep is his belief on this matter, he extends this ill-will and lack of benefit-of-doubt to all whites. His final prescription is that white people need to prove their loyalty to black people through consistent deeds of self-sacrifice, if there is ever to be any kind of a reconciliation that will transform the two groups into ones that “live together and not simply beside one another.”

Before I address Mr. Yonkah’s comments, first I’d like to say that I support his freedom of association. No doubt, my concession would be received by Mr. Yonkah as patronizing, but for me, association is an important freedom that deserves mentioning for how often devalued. So, If Yonkah wants to only form meaningful relationships according race or whatever, that is his choice, and I would not dare to interfere except to say I find it narrow minded. Mostly, I think it is sad that he’s decided to saddle his children with his own anxieties, but that is also his privilege as a parent. In any event, Yonkah doesn’t need my approval, and I would oppose any act of government to force the issue on anyone, within reason.

Additionally, I’d like to say that I understand some of his fears. I was not a Trump supporter, partly because I found the man morally deficient, but also because I was concerned with a part of his supporters that organized themselves along racial lines. I’m told that this constituency was small, but I was not impressed with Trump’s disavowal of such groups, like the KKK, which had endorsed the then candidate. The condemnation was weak, and like most of Trump’s positions, straddled the fence, leaving the door open in the minds of these groups that Trump was really on their side. Having said that, I don’t think the Trump was animated by racism, nor really any coherent ideology. He was and is boorish, and though some things he said could be described as bigoted, little evidence exists to demonstrates a ideological devotion to the racial inferiority of others. The examples Yonkah gives are misstatements of what Trump actually said, and I say that as a someone who’s been a consistent critic of Trump. Additionally, I think Yonkah’s blanket condemnation of all Trump supporters was ill-founded and ironic.

If you want to be honest, this past election was tough for the voters. I think it not much of an understated to say the 2016 was a contest between the two worst candidates of U.S. history. Trump’s issues and idiosyncrasies Yonkah highlighted, but because he and the left in general fail to acknowledge the criminality and corruption of Hillary Clinton, not to mention their own penchant for using the government to push an inorganic social agenda, they will always be left scratching their heads as to why Trump won. Also, this article highlights Yonkah’s own lack of self-awareness, that he can point the finger at people who say, “You can’t trust non-whites,” when he himself is saying, “You can’t trust whites.” Most Trump supporters that are concerned with race in any way don’t fall into the white-supremacist category. If there was any kind of generally racial component to a sizeable amount of Trump voters, I think it amounts to racial burn-out more than anything else. These people are just tired of getting the role of the congenitally evil white-guy from central casting. This insistence of racial culpability, by virtue of skin color, is in itself a profoundly racist conviction, and many chafe under its yoke.

It’s often said that we need to have an honest conversation on race, and I agree. Though it seems we do nothing but talk about race, very little of it is in any way honest. What people like Yonkah want is to be the gatekeepers of racial reconciliation, and their price is eternal deference. But what they fail to realize is, largely, they already have it. Aside from the various actions of the government and industry to favor black Americans over others (especially in the world of academia where Yonkah resides), for decades now, media and popular culture have pounded into the American public this idea that they are uniquely culpable for the racial wrongs of America’s past. It doesn’t matter that institutions like slavery and Jim Crowe and those that perpetuated them have been moldering in their graves for decades, nor does it matter how small the number of people that can be demonstrably shown to have benefited from privilege conferred by these institutions. Yet, like a little boy going to Sunday School to have it constantly reinforced that he was born in a state of sin, so white America is sermonized to on almost every medium for decades about their original sin. This has created fear in white people towards black America, not of being robbed or replaced, but of being marked with a scarlet letter R.

Being labeled a racist in U.S. society is an ever-present fear for whites, even among those who downplay the word as meaningless for its overuse. Apart from being deeply hurtful to generally well-meaning people, it can also destroy a person’s reputation, causing them to lose social standing, promotion, and even livelihood. But more than the fear of having such a label applied to them wantonly, many white people are ever longing for positive confirmation from blacks that they believe them to be good people, that no matter that they share the same pigment as the guy with the whip in 12 Years a Slave, they themselves have done nothing wrong. Instead of racism running deep in white America, I think there’s a better case to say that anti-racism runs deep in the same.

The most egregious example of whites begging for forgiveness that I witnessed was in Jamaica. Sadly, I didn’t mean that metaphorically. I was there in the late 90s as part of a church-group to aid local Caribbean churches in their activities. We did things like clearing brush, maintenance, and other evangelical tasks. We ended up at a Caribbean youth summit, the climax of our 2-month service project. There, the organization featured special musical/evangelical guests, a wife and husband team from Canada. At one point during a service that they officiated, this white woman said to her predominantly black audience that God told her that all the whites should join her on stage to apologize for slavery, and that’s exactly what they did! They got down on their knees and abased themselves for acts of evil that they had absolutely nothing to do with! While they were down there, they might as well have made atonement for cancer, which makes about as much sense. Certainly, the Caribbeans didn’t ask for such kowtowing. It was simply a manifestation of inset white-guilt, that in front of a sea of black faces, their reaction was to make a gesture of deference. And while this is an extreme example of just how desperately white America wants to be reconciled to black America, I think it is closer to the truth than the narrative offered by the good professor.

Obviously, the problems of race, more to the point, the feelings associated with the problems of race, are never going to be solved with one essay. I don’t deny that the historic experience of black America has few rivals in terms of struggle and oppression. However, crimes are not committed by groups; they are committed by individuals. Much the same, honorable deeds are not committed by groups, but individuals, and to be honorable requires discipline. An individual may have racial hang-ups, but the question is will they be controlled by them or overcome them. A white-man may fear a black-man’s power to call him a racist, but he must choose to suppress that feeling and deal with that person as an individual. Otherwise, he might miss out on a valuable friendship of equals, and not one where he feels he has to walk about on egg-shells. The same could be said of Yonkah. If he doesn’t want to miss out on what could be a valuable friendship with a white person, he’ll have to put aside his fear that the white-person is going to be racist to him. Sure, that can be scary. Often our prejudices act like a quilt, keeping us secure. When we wear them, we’re comfortable in our knowledge that the world makes sense.  Even if it’s an understanding the half the world is bad, at least you can categorize it and react accordingly; it’s a shield from harm. It has always been easier to generalize about people. Can you imagine if we had to take people as individuals and not mega-groups organized along racial lines? Madness! But unless we do, and consistently, we will succumb to racial-regressivism.

One can always protect themselves from people they don’t know, but to do so merely by race is useless. If I was robbed by white person, I doubt I would console myself in that fact. And certainly, all true friendships must be made with people you believe will stand by you in moments of crisis. Doing so within ones one’s social/cultural group, with people who have somewhat of a shared understanding of the world can be an easier way to form such bond, while seeming wise, is not a sure way. There are no sure ways. Instead, wisdom suggest that whenever possible, we should all practice grace and the benefit of the doubt to our neighbor. There none of us that don’t struggle with our own issues, but it is better, and potentially more rewarding, to show a measure of understanding and openness to learning the character of person instead of summarily rejecting them based on an arbitrary factor outside of their control, which is not necessarily indicative of any point of view. So, let’s not make exclusionary assumptions based upon skin color. What gives me a heavy heart is my having to have to say that, as if it were some kind of esoteric insight rather than common sense… for anyone.