Last week, I wrote about my frustration with calls for a national conversation about race, calls that have intensified in light of events of the past year. These calls never seem to get us any closer to solving our national problem.
Reaction was strong -- and mostly in opposition.
Some denied we have a national problem. Hard to know what to say about that.ColumnDobie: A national conversation about what, exactly?EditorialEditorial: Ferguson's potential historic turnGalleryCartoons: Unrest in America over policing
But the bulk of responses, in emails and online comments, were along the lines of: OK, let's talk, but only if we also talk about all the things black people do, the statistics of black acts. That, responders say, would make for an honest conversation -- if the stats tell more than just part of the story.
Among the things cited were the high incidence of black-on-black crime, a failure of black families to embrace faith, and the refusal of blacks to get an education.
First, let's talk about the subtext of this argument, which is more insidious than any individual point. That subtext is, basically, in talking about racism toward blacks you must talk about these other things because that's why we feel the way we do about black people. In other words, you say we're racist but we're not and here's our justification. It's a hairbreadth from saying: we're not prejudiced because we believe blacks are inferior, it's actually true.
Also problematic is the apparent belief that in the debate these things are somehow equivalent to centuries of racism -- individual and institutional -- that has played a significant role in creating many conditions blacks struggle with today. I'm not saying a conversation about race should be limited to racism on the part of whites, but let's not pretend these "facts" deserve equal space in the debate.
As for the "facts":
The most commonly cited statistic was the high rate of black-on-black crime -- 90 percent of black victims are killed by black offenders, as per the FBI. The number was offered as evidence that blacks are lawless, do not value life and, by the way, whites have nothing to do with that. But it's also true that 83 percent of white victims are killed by whites. The context? People commit crimes largely where they live and, since segregated neighborhoods are the rule in this country, not the exception, blacks kill blacks and whites kill whites. Not one person noted the vast majority of mass shootings in the United States are committed by white men. Does that say something about being white?
On the other hand, stats cited about the high number of single-parent black families are indeed troubling. That must be acknowledged, and addressed.
Another argument offered was that blacks need to return to religion and rediscover values. But blacks are more frequent churchgoers than whites -- 55 percent attend services often, compared to 41 percent of whites, according to Gallup.
A recurring theme was that blacks do not accept personal responsibility for their actions and their situations, the most frequent example being their supposed refusal to study hard and get the education that will let them get ahead. That's a good one. Limit blacks' access to good-paying jobs, concentrate black families in poor neighborhoods (the legacy of racial steering), congregate black children in failing schools, then blame them for not succeeding. Yeah, that's fair.
And the fictions cut both ways. Witness the now-discredited hands-up slogan that originated in Ferguson, Missouri.
So, sure, let's have an open and honest conversation. But it must be open and honest, not cynical and disingenuous.
When you tell black people only that changing the status quo depends on what they need to do, you're not really talking.
Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.