The IUSB Vision Weblog

The way to crush the middle class is to grind them between the millstones of taxation and inflation. – Vladimir Lenin

America’s Racial Divide: Same Words, Different Worlds

Posted by iusbvision on March 25, 2008

The issue of race relations in America and how to deal with it has now taken on a far different life than anyone could have imagined. Perhaps now there will finally be a conversation on race that America really needs.

But the racial divide between Black and White America is far different than anyone is really willing to admit, far different than many of us even know about. We certainly want to get this issue behind us as a nation no doubt, but getting from seeing the problem to seeing the solution seems elusive at this point.

And that, in my view, is because the races aren’t talking to each other. It is not because of animosity or hate, what I see is something really quite different. I see Black and White America talking literally two different cultural languages: on the one hand, there is the language of struggle, inequality and victimization.  On the other hand is the language of forgiveness, equality, personal responsibility.

Both are valid, of course, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of recognizing both equally. We either emphasize one or the other.  And which language you emphasize determines the outcome of the way you interpret your world.

The real problem with interpreting Jeremiah Wright’s seemingly racist and anti-American diatribes is that they make a false assumption that is baked into the cake. The assumption is that all things being equal, the interpretation of words and meanings should be equal to both races. But that is a demonstrably false assumption.

The problem is that African Americans were not brought here by choice, they were brought here as slaves.  And that, my friends, changes everything.  What that means is that we as a nation do not have a shared set of beliefs, we do not have a shared history, and we do not have a shared understanding of ourselves as a people. No. For African Americans it is different.  

Theirs is a culture of struggle. Theirs is a culture of difference. Theirs is a culture of injustice and victimization.  And because their shared heritage is so much different than the rest of us who were brought here because we chose to be here, that difference has had a profound impact on how we see our different worlds, and how we interpret the same words from the pulpit on Sunday morning. 

So when Reverend Jeremiah Wright launches into a sermon sound bite about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he is decidedly not talking at all about World War II and the justification to drop the atom bomb.  Absurd history lesson though it is, it is a language that Black America understands, a language they respond to instinctively. What he is talking about is something completely different. He is speaking to the wound in the Black soul, the ache in the conscience of a people, the sense that one group of people is forcing its will upon another.  And this is why Reverend Wright’s congregation stood up and cheered.  It was not because America was unjustified in its attack on Japan, it was not because America is a bad country, and it was not because the congregants hate America. No most certainly not!! It was a narrow interpretation of events that helped make a broader point that Reverend Wright was making: the injustice of one group forcing its will upon another.

The comparison was inarticulate and hopelessly apples and oranges to white Americans, but African Americans have learned not to interpret the text of a sermon the way white Americans do. What they understand all too well is a sermon’s subtext: what they hear behind the words themselves. White America understands text, Black America understands subtext. And that was the point of Reverend Wright’s sermons. He was speaking to something the rest of us can only glimpse, to something exclusively Black in its scope.

When a Black minister speaks, African Americans hear something quite different than merely text. They hear what speaks to the meaning of being Black in America, the meaning of being misunderstood, the meaning of being the victim, the meaning of being the ‘other’ that just doesn’t seem to break through no matter how hard they try to speak to others about their issues. Black America has a different history, a different identity, a different and unseen struggle that others cannot really quite understand in their terms. For Black America lives in a different world than White America, and no matter how loud they shout it, no matter how hard they try to be heard, their voices never really come through. White America is trying, to be sure, but ultimately they cannot hear the voices that a history of slavery, injustice, and oppression has silenced.

Gerry Rough

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