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What We Talk About When We Talk Race

Racism in this country is not history. And neither blacks nor whites are over it.

That’s the view of former Secretary of Defense William Cohen in his new book, “Race and Reconciliation in America.— Cohen, along with his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, recently assembled a consortium of academics, business people, artists, Members of Congress, journalists and others to discuss issues of truth, tolerance and reconciliation among the races.

It’s clearly a good time to bring up the topic.

In the book, the Cohens tackle the taboo topics of white privilege, history’s teachings on “man-breaking and slave-making,— affirmative action, black inferiority vs. white superiority and the economics of race.

“We have an obligation to try to move this country forward, to make it a more perfect union, to reach a higher level of humanity, to become the one nation under God that we have always professed to be, an undivided nation coming from many,— writes William Cohen, a former Republican Senator from Maine.

The book is a transcription of a conference on race held in Washington, D.C., in July 2008 and edited by both Cohen and his wife, an Emmy-nominated journalist, author and playwright.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), former Deputy White House Chief of Staff Maria Echaveste and Peggy McIntosh of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women were some of the participants whose comments were included.

Lewis was one of the Freedom Riders of 1961. In the book, Lewis recalls his parents instructing him to stay out of trouble and not to “get in the way.— Instead, he says, “I got in the way. I got in trouble. It was good trouble. … It is necessary trouble to take us much further down that road to create a truly interracial democracy in America where we can lay down the burden of race.—

The Cohens also remain optimistic throughout the book, petitioning the “good people— of America to concede the truth of the past and present, dispel all myths, eliminate the blame game, forgive and heal.

William Cohen emphasizes the need for whites and blacks to heal the resentment within their communities. According to Cohen, whites harbor embedded resentment when confronted with the history of lynching, segregation, and the degradation and dehumanization of African-Americans. A common retort by whites, which Cohen mentions, is, “I had nothing to do with how black people were treated fifty or one hundred years ago. … It’s history. Get over it.—

Conversely, in the black community grievances are held over not only the past mistreatment of African-Americans by the white majority, but also about how those misdeeds are still too recent.

“Every day, there’s a new reason for the rage,— Cohen writes.

He recalls seeing one night on television a black man who was holding a hunting knife and surrounded by 13 police officers. With their 9 mm handguns drawn, all of the policemen opened fire, killing him instantly on the streets of New Orleans. He goes on to mention how two weeks later, he witnessed another scene, in a different state, of a moose that got loose in a rural community posing a threat to the citizens of the small town. The police decide to shoot the moose with a tranquilizer gun and return him to his habitat.

“It was just a jarring sight for me to see and to try to reconcile that, as we think about our humanity — that we cared more about the moose than we did about that black man with a knife,— Cohen writes.

The central point the Cohens make is to reveal that the grave and cruel injustices are not just crimes of yesteryear or of an era long gone, but are unfortunate testaments of America’s present condition.

America has made tremendous strides, in terms of race relations and stands at the apex of a civil rights revolution. However, the book outlines the dynamics of how racial hatred has morphed into contemporary controversial discussions about affirmative action and how it challenges the notion of white privilege.

In the book, Peggy McIntosh, author of the book, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,— directly addresses the topic. “In 1980, I wrote a list of forty-six ways in which I can count on having the institutions of the culture give me the benefit of the doubt and send me ahead, by contrast with the experiences of my African American colleagues at Wellesley Centers for Women.—

McIntosh further notes, “White privilege is the missing link between seeing racism as discrimination and being able to do something about it by lessening unearned advantage.—

“Race and Reconciliation— challenges us as individuals of one race — the human race.

The bottom line of the book and the Cohens’ lifework is that Americans must learn how to embrace all our history, no matter how evil or ugly it may be; to be honest with ourselves and with one another; to lay aside the blame game; to assemble a plan of restorative justice and truly reconcile the races.

To some this may simply be the rhetoric of a fool’s paradise. But to those as optimistic as the Cohens, this country may one day experience the true America dream — one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

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