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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Race and politics in Durham

A few pieces that appeared in print this week around town got me thinking about race and politics in Durham.

All politics in Durham is about race, right?

Not exactly, but all of Durham's politics has a racial component that manifests in ways that are unpredictable to many of us who did not grow up here.

I mentioned Barry Saunders' column yesterday and promised to revisit it with some thoughts. We'll get to those later. First, i alluded to some "controversial" pieces in town recently, that i had some thoughts about, but didn't necessarily feel obligated to write about. But i wanted to say something about this one, and i wanted to have some time to think about it.

I found my hook a day or two after that story, in the Indy letters column. Dudley Stallings of Knightdale, responding to the previous week's cover story about John Hope Franklin, writes:
What does John Hope Franklin have to complain about? He has lived a life of the elite, better than a great percentage of whites. His father was an attorney in 1920. Of course slavery was terrible, but no people living today had anything to do with it and owe nothing to anyone. Would all of the blacks whose ancestors were brought from Africa be better off today if those ancestors had never left Africa?

Which we can summarize as "John Hope Franklin has a nicer house than i do, so slavery couldn't have been that bad."

Mr. Stallings makes a common mistake, which we'll see repeated shortly. He takes a specific individual, in this case Mr. Franklin, and attempts to draw unsupported generalizations from that person's life to an entire culture, or, in this case, race.

Sorry, bud, it doesn't work that way. How many generations provided labor, without compensation, to build some of the world's great fortunes for others? What would the distribution of wealth be like in this world if slaves had been allowed to accumulate the wealth which their labor helped to create? If John Hope Franklin has achieved success in this life as a result of his intelligence and diligence, that's a reflection on him, but has really nothing to do with the wrongs created and perpetuated by centuries of slavery. As things stand, we really can't say what the fortunes of individuals and cultures might be had the African slave trade never existed. But its continuing effects cannot be dismissed simply because John Hope Franklin has made a better life for himself than Dudley Stallings here at the beginning of the 21st century.

Solomon Burnette, writing in the NC Central student paper "The Campus Echo," makes a similar mistake in criticizing (and going beyond criticism, actually) the outcome of the Duke lacrosse rape case. As i've argued several times in the past, first and foremost, this case is about the people actually involved in it. District Attorney Mike Nifong took the original allegations with the utmost seriousness, conducted his investigations and, at least for a log time, had me convinced that there was a case to be made against the players. It should be pretty clear, and i suspect it is to most Durham residents, that case basically didn't exist.

It may very well be true, as Mr. Burnette alleges, that "White people still murder us with impunity. White people still beat us with impunity. White people still rape us and get away with it." But i don't think we can draw that conclusion from this case. What we have is, in the end, an unreliable accuser, a single individual whose lack of credibility ends up preventing us from ever learning the whole truth about what happened last March.

The unfortunate result, i think, is that women of any skin color are going to find themselves facing greater skepticism when they do report crimes of sexual violence. Because drawing inappropriate generalizations from individual events is a human characteristic which affects all of us.

Barry Saunders addresses one of those Durham issues in which race plays a role, even if it's not one which is obvious to the casual observer. You see, even though 5 out of the 6 candidates to replace the late Senator Jeanne Lucas were African-American (and the only white candidate had minimal support), there was a clear racial subtext to the election which those of us who were lobbied to support the various candidates were aware of.

And i suspect that Mr. Saunders, who has been a journalist and columnist in this town for a long time, is surely aware of it as well. So, it's one thing to castigate the Durham County Democratic Party for electing Floyd McKissick to the seat. But Mr. Saunders readers are entitled to a view of the bigger picture that resulted in Mr. McKissick's election. After all, the final ballot was 44-38-1, which indicates that personalized lobbying on the part of an organized faction of the party may very well have played a successful part in the outcome.

Finally, let me say that Mr. Saunders, as a journalist, is entitled to publish his opinions whenever and however he wants. As a Durham Democratic Party county executive committee member, i feel pretty much obligated to support our new Senator now that the election is over. Mr. Saunders is under no such obligation. But if he holds such stong feelings about Mr. McKissick, he might have thought about publishing them before the election, when they might have swayed the handful of votes that could have changed the outcome of the election, rather than at this late date, when all he accomplishes is making himself look smug, and making it more difficult for Mr. McKissick to successfully represent Durham in the state legislature.

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