What’s Missing in the Dialogue about Race in America?

Ronald David

I can imagine two levels of response to the question at hand. I might respond, say, as a public health administrator. This I will call the macro level of civic (and, I hope, civil) discourse. Here my intention would be to influence public policy for the good of the social order. On another level, as a priest and chaplain, I might reflect on the micro level of interpersonal dialogue. Here my hope would be to grow in the knowledge and love of my dialogical partner, to co-create new meaning of our shared experience of race.

For me, the micro level of engagement has been the most difficult … and the most fruitful. My difficulty is that I must strive to acknowledge my own thoughts and feelings. Unlike the macro level of discourse, I cannot deploy an imaginary shield of anonymity or detached objectivity. I feel more vulnerable in intimate dialogue. Yet it is at this level of relationship that I have witnessed the fruit of my interlocutor’s liberation and tasted my own.

So, with this prologue I return to the question: What is missing in the dialogue about race in America? I reply: What is missing are participants who are compassionate, candid, courageous, and consciously relational – factors that would enrich both levels of engagement.

Sub-Atomic Communion

I am a relational being through and through. I live and move and have my being in relationship, through relationship, and for the very sake of relationship. I believe this to be true of all human beings. Indeed, from the perspective of quantum mechanics, relationality is eerily evident throughout the fabric of the universe and manifest as “entanglement.” All things created in the primordial Big Bang remain entangled; space-time is a construct that gives the illusion of separateness. As one preeminent theologian, John D. Zizioulas, states the case, “There is no true being without communion. Nothing exists as an ’individual,’ conceivable in itself. Communion is an ontological category.”1

The reality of this communion notwithstanding, I have difficulty loving my neighbor as myself. The challenge is not in loving my neighbor in the same way that I love my illusory self. After all, even the love of that illusory self waxes and wanes. Rather, the difficulty is in experiencing and acknowledging myself as an ensemble of relationships. I imagine this is true for others who have been, as I have, enculturated to believe and behave as though we were born utterly dependent and that our developmental trajectory is toward independence and rugged individualism.

Acknowledging this elemental communion between us all – becoming conscious of our relational selves – is the first ingredient missing from dialogue about race in America.

Missing alongside the consciously relational self is the courageously emotional self. Curiously, even as emotions give rise to2 and constitute the sense of self 3 we are hardly aware of our emotions in dialogue – and are loathe to share them. When we do become conscious of an emergent emotion we will likely attempt to suppress or disguise it. This is especially true of fear, and dialogue about race in America is replete with unacknowledged fear.

To be sure, emotions are expressed in dialogue and irrepressibly so. In the domain of civic discourse I can hear James Baldwin’s outrage at white men for denying their guilt.4 I can feel Shelby Steele’s sadness or shame for the black man’s proclivity to claim innocence and thereby assume the role of victim.5 I can hear Lani Guinier’s lament, in the prologue to her otherwise hope-filled book, The Miner’s Canary, as she recounts her worries about her son growing up as a black man in America.6 And I can certainly hear the undertones of Michelle Alexander’s righteous outrage in her masterful book The New Jim Crow.7

True enough, Shelby Steele names a fear: “What black and white Americans fear are the sacrifices and risks that true racial harmony demands. This fear is the measure of our racial chasm.”

But these pointed insights and arguments from civil discourse are not easily transferrable to intimate, interpersonal dialogue when one has to name one’s own fear and propose the self-sacrifices to be made and personal risks to be taken. What is missing, then, is courage to name our fear. At least that is true for me as an African American for whom fear triggers and masquerades as anger. I am forever endeavoring to avoid the stigma and the stereotype of the “angry black man” … and even that level of candor requires that I imagine you, the reader, as a trusted friend.

Candor Deficit

In dialogue about race I am more inclined to be guarded rather than candid. There is this notable exception: In retrospect I am aware of ways I have employed candor as a rhetorical device designed to intentionally provoke ire! Such a strategy has the effect of safely projecting my own anger. Should you respond to the provocation by taking in and acting out the emotion, I can claim innocence. So candor in the service of truth is largely missing from dialogue about race relations in America. So, too, is compassion.

Whether or not we are conscious of the experience, human beings do “suffer with” those we witness in pain.8 It is a curious fact that the very same area of the brain in which blood flow and oxygen consumption increases with physical pain is also active with the social pain of estrangement, isolation, and alienation.9

While compassion is our biological nature, active empathy is an experience that requires the cerebral cortex, a structure that evolved after the formation of the limbic brain. Empathy requires data gathering and perspective taking. We learn empathy, just as we learn apathy and antipathy. It seems to me that conflict-filled race relations of late are more likely to excite the latter.

Compassionate, candid, courageous, consciously relational beings – if we could recover these “ingredients” for the contemporary dialogue about race, how might interpersonal dialogue feel and sound? Here, just as I have attempted to engage you, the reader, as an imaginary interlocutor, I would like to engage Rep. John Boehner in conversation about an incident that may or may not have been racially “tainted.” In this conversation I am mindful of purposely dancing on the borderline of civic discourse and interpersonal dialogue.

Rumors of Annihilation

The incident in question is Mr. Boehner’s remarks to the politically moderate Ripon Society on Jan. 23, 2013, in Washington, D.C.10 In that speech Mr. Boehner’s face is bereft of affect even as he declares that President Obama’s administration will “attempt to annihilate the Republican Party.” He anticipates working in an “environment that is far hostile [sic] than anything we’ve seen in a long, long time.” He poses a number of questions including, “Where’s the ground we fight on?”

Here the reader might well exclaim and ask, “Wait a moment! What does Mr. Boehner’s speech have to do with the dialogue on race in America?” Mr. Boehner, too, would be understandably troubled if I were to imply that his comments were racially tinged, let alone wholly tainted.

Still, I wish to enter this dialogue with the hope of exploring and clarifying our thoughts and feelings. For myself, I want to be able to speak aloud about why race comes up for me at all. This is a difficult challenge as I endeavor to avoid the very trap James Baldwin warns of – i.e., “ … the black man can scarcely dare to open a dialogue which must, if it is honest, become a personal confession which fatally contains an accusation.”11

On the other hand, if I have compassion for Mr. Boehner, I should try to understant why he harbors a fear that the Republican Party of which he is a member and which he represents truly believes that it is someone’s goal “to just shove us in the dustbin of history.” The absence of emotional expression on his face notwithstanding, I give credence to his fear. It is a fear that seems punctuated if not affirmed by the skyrocketing sales of guns and ammunition long before the president’s reelection and long before Sandy Hook.

Faces of Fear

Perhaps I understand his fear because his emotionless face is a perfect projection screen for my own desire to at least figuratively annihilate a political party that seems ready to do the same to the president with whom I identify racially if not always politically. Perhaps he is unconsciously trying to present himself as innocent of any intention to “annihilate” this president or his administration. Or perhaps Mr. Boehner is projecting onto the Democratic Party and the president the self-destructive behavior the Republican Party seems to have inflicted on itself. And yes, there are moments, many moments, when I pray that some members and tenets of republicanism (read individualism) would self-destruct.

Whatever the case, it is primarily out of compassion and concern for Mr. Boehner that I wish to explore the trigger for his fear, even as I attempt to explore the basis of my own. If Mr. Boehner and I are not one literally (and I believe that we are), at the very least we are inextricably bound in a “single garment of destiny.” We share a history of race in this country that resists colorblindness and the facile erasure of race. Race-less conflict may be possible, but at this moment in history it is a “diagnosis of exclusion.” For the sake of healing and wholeness we owe it to ourselves to excavate rather than bury the reality of race and race conflict in America.

If we can recover the necessary ingredients – find a way to be consciously relational beings of compassion, candor, and courage – we just might be able to co-author new meanings of race in America. You and I just might be able to co-create a new world.

The Rev. Ronald David is a pediatrician/neonatologist, Episcopal priest, chaplain, and a supervisor in clinical pastoral education at the Hospital of the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles.


1 J.D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), p. 18.

2 A.N. Schore, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994).

3 K.J. Gergen, Realities and Relationships: Soundings in Social Construction (Harvard, 1997).

4 James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt” in The Price of the Ticket (St. Martin’s/Marek, 1985).

5 Shelby Steele, “I’m Black,You’re White, Who’s Innocent?” in Harper’s Magazine, June 1988.

6 Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres, The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy (Harvard, 2003).

7 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010).

8 M.V. Saarela, et al., “The Compassionate Brain: Humans Detect Intensity of Pain from Another’s Face,” Cerebral Cortex 17, 2007: pp., 230-237.

9 N.I. Eisenberger and M.D. Lieberman, “Why Rejection Hurts: A Common Neural Alarm System for Physical and Social Pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8(7), 2004, pp. 294-300.

10 http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2013/01/23/boehner-obama-wants-to-annihilatethe-gop/

11 Baldwin, p. 412.

12 Guinier and Torres.