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Nashville Scene Without Consensus

The Fisk Race Relations Institute: The Story the Media Didn't Tell

By Margaret Renkl

JULY 28, 1997:  The distance between Fisk University and my Green Hills neighborhood is only five miles, but it could be measured in light years. In Green Hills it's possible for a white person to go for whole days, even weeks, without giving much thought to the issue of racism. Fisk, however, is home to the Race Relations Institute, which staged its 31st conference on the university campus July 8-13. More than a year had gone into planning, promotion, and fund-raising for the conference. At Fisk no one ever gets a vacation from the issue of race.

When I turned off Jefferson Street and onto Fisk's campus the first morning of the conference, I wasn't exactly expecting to step out of my Taurus wagon and into a "Kumbaya" sing-along. But not many white people, whose experience with race relations tends to come from the television news, could have been prepared for the passions of that week. There were some white people at the Institute; approximately 35 percent of the 200 registered participants were white. But those participants had been invited there because of their demonstrated commitments to ending distrust among ethnic groups. More often than not, your garden-variety white person is not that sort of passionate community activist.

For people of color, that sort of racial complacency is a big part of the problem with white people. During the first two days of the Institute, almost everyone who came to the microphone was angry--more than angry, really; they were absolutely furious. As a garden-variety white person, I had expected the conference to begin with a staid, think-tank-style defining of terms. I had expected there would be agreement that racism, while no longer overt, has gone underground. I had expected examples of subtle but persistent prejudice despite a 30-year dismantling of Jim Crow laws. I arrived equipped with notebook and tape-recorder, ready to learn about what one African American participant referred to as "the microhurts" that "pile up" day by day.

But no one paused for even a second to enumerate the microhurts; almost immediately it became clear that for a great many of the Fisk speakers--panelists, keynote addressers, and question-askers at the microphone--the major wounds were still hemorrhaging, and the microhurts could wait. One participant, a young professional woman who feared she might lose her job if her boss knew she had talked to a reporter, wouldn't allow me to quote her descriptions of flagrant workplace racism. Exasperated, she told me, "You read the newspaper, you watch the news. How many examples do you people need?"

It's almost impossible, in the length of a 3,000-word article, to capture both the passionate anger and the transcendent hope that existed in uneasy alliance at the 1997 Race Relations Institute. Some of the near-schizophrenia of that week existed along generational lines: Many of the youngest voices--student and community volunteers--were also the most impatient, while the older, seasoned professionals--who had survived the civil rights movement of the '60s and who had seen even the most implacable and irascible public fixtures undergo transformations--spoke quietly in favor of education reforms and public dialogue.

But the generation gap cannot explain the entire range of feeling, the vitriol and the hurt that contrasted with the shiny-eyed sense of possibility. There was shouting, and there was weeping, often from a single speaker. I'm not sure any garden-variety white person, even living in that crucible for six days, could ever understand how many passionate feelings the racism issue raises for people of color.

In the opening remarks of the opening panel discussion, David Du Bois, a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts and son of pioneering black writer and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, pointed out that most Americans have not been taught the truth about Africa and its relation to Europe, about the horrors of slave passage or the conditions of life as a slave. As a result, he said, "they cannot know where our pain comes from."

But if a history of slavery--horrible as that history is to virtually everyone on both sides of the racial divide--were the only problem, the Race Relations Institute's work would have been much simpler. Many white people find little connection between themselves and the history of slavery. They point out--quite reasonably, it would appear--that they do not themselves own slaves and that they should not be held accountable for the sins of their forebears. The problem, as many black people at the conference expressed it, is that the same mentality which permitted and promoted slavery still pervades society today.

Throughout the week this mind-set was consistently referred to as "the culture of white supremacy." A garden-variety white person hearing the term "white supremacy" feels no personal remorse; like slave-owners, white supremacists are Somebody Else, the cosmic Not Me. Thus, garden-variety white people go to race-relations conferences expecting to be embraced by black people who are delighted to have found a new friend. Neo-Nazi hate groups, militias, and the Ku Klux Klan are, of course, part of a recognized system of white supremacy, but it took me an entire day to realize that, for many African Americans apparently, "white supremacy" is synonymous with "American society." When I finally asked, outright, what the term meant, Gamal Nkrumah--an Egyptian journalist and the son of Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana--offered a thumbnail definition: "It's the white way of thinking, the white perspective that's dominant." Later in the conference, journalist Harry Allen offered another explanation, asking the white people in the audience, "You know that feeling you get in February, when you wish Black History Month would end? That's the way black people feel all the time. All. The. Time. I want to get rid of that. I don't want to be locked inside of white history eternally, like a bad mime, unable to get out."

White supremacy was the subject of a keynote address by Frances Cress Welsing--a black psychiatrist, the author of The Isis Papers, and one of the most entertaining, forthright, and controversial speakers at the Institute. Many of Dr. Welsing's "theories" were unempirical and sweeping, based--in the most generous estimate--on anecdotal evidence. Her indictment of the media might have found firmer grounding, for example, than the difference she noted between their treatment of Orenthal James Simpson and Timothy James McVeigh: "See, God gave us the two J.'s so that we could sit back and look. O.J. was accused of killing two. T.J. was accused of killing 169 and wounding 500, and nobody even mentions his name. [But] O.J. had sex with a white female and produced non-white children, and that's the summation of concern in the white supremacy system and culture."

I don't know anything about the summation of concern in the white supremacy system, but I do know that Timothy McVeigh's name has been plastered all over TV and the newspapers for over a year. Not to mention that little matter of the death penalty he faces.

Much was made in the local media of Welsing's more colorful theories about white genetic inferiority. The early European explorers, she explained, "found out that if these men who had white skins had sexual relations with the black, brown, red, and yellow people, all of the children ended up looking like their mothers. That's because the condition of skin whiteness is a genetic recessive trait, and the ability to produce the black pigment, melanin, is a genetically dominant trait. So when this miscegenation occurs, [the white race] will disappear." As evidence, Welsing invited her audience to look around the room. "See all these different-colored colored people? These people were not made by Sally Hemmings raping Thomas Jefferson."

According to Frances Cress Welsing, racism exists because of "the white brain computer's" need to protect the vulnerability of white genetic existence. In her theory, this often unconscious self-protection gets played out not only in overt acts of racism but also in white fascination with symbols of black genetic power--that is, images that suggest black male genitalia. Such symbols can be obvious--like cigars--but they can also be subtle--like golf clubs: "Pay attention to the symbolism: long stick held between legs, trying to get the little white ball through the grass. And where does that little ball go? It goes into a hole in black mother earth."

But whether or not you accept Welsing's theories about the causes of racism (and according to one black participant in the Institute, many African American scholars remain unconvinced), it's impossible not to admire her ultimate goal of seeing all children, of whatever color, "develop to the highest level of their genetic and constitutional potential."

As a psychiatrist, Welsing developed her theories not as simple description of a fatally flawed system, but as a first step in helping psychologically damaged people become healed: "Why is this important to understand?" she asked. "Because we have a majority of people on planet earth being taught to hate themselves, and if people hate themselves, they're not going to be able to relate harmoniously to one another. They will have epidemics of homicide."

Egyptian journalist Gamal Nkrumah addresses the Race Relations Institute Photo by Susan Adcock

While corporate executives and ineffective government took their share of knocks during the week, the institution most reviled for perpetuating racist stereotypes was the media. Though the "Race and Media" discussion group formally acknowledged, in its final recommendations, the crucial function of the media in a healthy democracy, it lamented the media's unwillingness to offer in-depth coverage of complicated issues in the African American community.

At Sunday's prayer breakfast, which closed the Institute, Yvonne Scruggs, executive director of the National Black Leadership Forum, said, "Your outcomes of this week's intense deliberations will be anxiously awaited--even by a press which, more often than not, will extract the most simplistic sound bite, at the expense of the substantive statement of principle."

In Thursday's panel session about entertainment and race relations, Neely Fuller Jr., who is black and the author of A Handbook for Victims of Racism, also took the media to task. Holding up the front page of USA Today, he pointed to a large picture of Mike Tyson. "Know what message you're supposed to pick up?" he asked. "This is supposed to be about entertainment, the so-called sport of boxing, [but] the image that the little white lady gets in Iowa City is of a beast turned loose on the general population. Anywhere in the world you see a face like this, [you're supposed to think] `Beware: Animal on the loose.' "

On the same panel, rapper Chuck D. argued that even apparently positive media coverage of successful African Americans can be construed as having a racist agenda. According to Chuck D.'s reasoning, white people see the isolated examples of a few black celebrities and assume that all black people have the same opportunities for success, that because a few black people are wealthy there's no need to worry about the rest. "The creation and projection of so-called black celebrities through the media--television, movies, records, the whole industry--has been done to cut any kind of cultural progress while providing an illusion of equality, level-footing, and forwardness. And the whole thing is, you build up all these niggers so you can take them all down," he said.

As a representative of the so-called racist media, I found it a little difficult to accept this wholesale condemnation of the fourth estate, particularly after hearing Tim Chavez, a Mexican American journalist, speak persuasively about the efforts to offset racist tendencies at The Tennessean, the Gannett-owned paper where he is a columnist. Still, it was impossible not to notice how often the week's news reports about the Race Relations Institute barely scratched the surface of what was happening. So much of what was written or aired on television concerned the most incendiary statements, often without any sort of explanatory context. Frances Cress Welsing's drawing of a penis and testicles, for example, was repeatedly characterized as "bordering on the sexually explicit," when in fact it consisted of nothing more than two circles and a very elongated oval. The Sunday comics are more obscene. In almost every story, the sound-bite strategy implied a collusion between inflamed speaker and audience. Reading the papers and watching the news, you might have thought there was uniformity of opinion on even the most controversial topics--when nothing resembling unanimity of opinion emerged during the entire conference.

One of the hot quotes came from Chuck D., who said, "We got to kill some people." Obviously, such a statement is inflammatory and attention-grabbing, and it's not in the least surprising that the media fixed on it. After all, it appeals to the prurient side of the audience's appetite. Some media outlets, like some members of Chuck D.'s audience, took the rapper at his literal word, providing much of the drama at the conference that morning. Paul Du Bois, who is black and the publisher of the American News Service, temporarily usurped the microphone to chastise Chuck D. "I know I'm not the only person here who is disgusted with some of what I've heard this morning," Du Bois said. "Killing people is not a solution. That is the same damn solution that the racists and the lynchers have been [using against] our people for decades, and you all know that. You're not representing our people."

Later that day, a white man went to the microphone to reiterate Du Bois' point. "I can't in good conscience be a part of a forum in which we even entertain the concept of violence," he said. "For several years I've worked as an investigator, researcher, and writer, considering the questions of hate crimes and the histories of hate groups in America. And I have infiltrated a number of groups--from the Klan to other hate groups to militias--that advocate violence in the name of God and country. They're all debating the question of how to use violence against you people. And I will not be part of a forum where violence is discussed as a possible legitimate solution to the problem of race relations. I'm sorry, I can't see it. You lost me."

History lesson David DuBois of the University of Massachusetts (standing) contended that whites have not been taught the truth about slavery. Photo by Susan Adcock

The Tennessean speculated later that Chuck D.'s comments about killing had perhaps been metaphorical, but in fact the musician had already explained his own remarks. "I think condoning violence is totally out of the question," he argued. Then he went on to point out that, because violence is the only thing that gets media attention, it's the likeliest means of leading the white community to view race relations with some urgency. Violence is already a problem African Americans face, he pointed out, but until it threatens them, white people can ignore it. "That's the paradox that black people have been dealing with. The violence does exist, right now, in the black community--which is eating itself alive," Chuck D. said.

In Thursday's keynote address, Benjamin DeMott, who is white and the author of The Trouble With Friendship: Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Race, echoed Chuck D.'s explanation: "The vision of violence as a solution is a vision that I can't share. On the other hand, only those voices that speak with the threat of violence seem now to capture, even momentarily, the attention of white people--at least to the extent of saying, `We've got to do something about this.' If there were no such voices, if there were no such threat of terror, you have to ask yourself, what would work? What would be the wake-up call?"

By definition, a garden-variety white person sees no need for a wake-up call, but many white people at the Institute publicly asked what they could do to improve the state of race relations today. Some of the black speakers--both the scheduled panelists and the audience members who stood in line for a chance to speak into the microphone--offered their advice to concerned whites. Tennessee State University student and Chattanooga native Apowah Jamaal recommended that white people should be less interested in bonding with black people than in proselytizing less-enlightened whites. "I don't want your hugs," Jamaal insisted. "What is a hug? That lasts for two-point-something seconds. But the knowledge and wisdom that you can give to your brothers and your sisters is something that's going to last a lifetime." Nashvillian Tim Wise, who is white and the director of the Youth Anti-Prejudice Project, agreed with Jamaal. Wise travels to predominantly white college and university campuses to give speeches and workshops designed to heighten racial awareness among whites. He acknowledged that people of color might be suspicious about a white man's efforts in this cause, but he argued, "I don't do what I do to make black people happy, to make Latinos happy, to make them like me. I do what I do because I think the white community needs redemption for what goes on in this country; I do what I do to save my people as much as anything. I think white people are spiritually deformed and economically and politically injured by racism."

Neely Fuller Jr. recommended a policy of honesty, no matter how painful, among all ethnic groups. "One of the most difficult things to get white people to do is to tell the truth," he said. "They would rather be polite. And we--the victims, or the black people--encourage that. We like it that way because when we get told the truth it hurts. But it's about time for everybody to get an excellent dose of the truth. If you want to help out, if you want to solve the race problem almost overnight, just get in the habit of that."

Social movement The Uhuru Dancers performed for Institute participants Photo by Susan Adcock

While almost everyone at the conference applauded President Bill Clinton's call for an honest, year-long dialogue about race, not everyone seemed convinced that such a dialogue would solve the problem of persistent racism. Many expressed a weariness with continued talk and urged more action. Julia Wright--freelance writer and anti-death-penalty activist, as well as the daughter of novelist Richard Wright--told me during a bus-ride past the housing project next to Meharry Medical Center, "There are people standing outside the fence, and we need to reach them before they are beyond reach. Some of my father's dreams have been broken, [but] today there are people who cannot dream at all, and when a person is deprived of dreaming, that person will perish. It's time to stop talking, to stop the dialogue. I feel some real urgency to reach these people [outside the fence] before it's too late, and we're running out of time."

The sense of running out of time was, perhaps ironically, most acute among the Institute's younger participants, many of whom expressed real skepticism that anything at all could be done to erase racism completely. However, the final days of the conference weren't just marked by despair. There were expressions of hope as well. Paul Du Bois--whose American News Service provides news stories about people who are searching at the grassroots level for solutions to social problems--said in his rebuttal to the pessimism of the Entertainment and Race Relations panel, "There are people all across this country who are joining together--sometimes interracially, sometimes just monoracially--in order to try to solve the real problems of their community. You don't have to look at the old models of racist hatred; you can look to the new, courageous people who are doing something in their communities."

If everybody at the conference had been as optimistic as Paul Du Bois, we might have ended the week holding hands and singing "Kumbaya." That we didn't is less a comment on the Race Relations Institute than on the culture we live in. Driving away from Fisk that last day, I understood some things I hadn't understood driving in. A week of 14-hour days spent thinking and talking about the divisions of race, days devoted to imagining ways to bridge that distance and heal that anger, was more than I had bargained for when I signed up for what I had assumed would be a policy-making think-tank. I was bone-tired of the passions. I was ready to get home to my little house in the leafy suburbs, ready to think about anything other than race.

One thing I realized, driving down Jefferson Street, is that the relief of not thinking about race is one of the unspoken privileges of being white. No matter how tired people of color might get of thinking and talking about it, no matter how much pain both the racial hemorrhaging and the racist microhurts might cause them, that's a luxury they don't have.

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