“To engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin not with the problems of black people but with the flaws of American society—flaws rooted in historic inequities and longstanding cultural stereotypes.” — Cornel West’s “Race Matters”
I am a white man living in West Marin who has been engaged with issues of race and interracial relationships in America since childhood. The recent events in Charlottesville, the un-prosecuted police murders of unarmed African American women and men, and the raw facts of American history press upon me, and all so-called white Americans, an urgency to examine ourselves. Again.
In his Aug. 12 New York Times piece, “Charlottesville and the Bigotocracy,” Michael Eric Dyson wrote, “Now is the time for every decent white American to prove he or she loves this country by actively speaking out against the scourge this bigotocracy represents. If such heinous behavior is met by white silence, it will only cement the perception that as long as most white folk are not immediately at risk, then all is relatively well. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could more clearly declare the moral bankruptcy of our country.” Amen.
People have been talking about race here in Inverness every other Tuesday evening since the middle of May. These drop-in gatherings facilitated by me at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church & Retreat House have been attended at one time or another by a varied group of Anglos, Latinos, European Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and African Americans. Based on the interests of participants, the evolving discussion has touched upon and at times delved into issues of race, racism, white privilege (and fragility), contemporary politics, historic and economic inequities, and a variety of excellent reading and viewing materials.
I was inspired to propose such a community conversation on race three years ago by the outrageous police assassination of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the unprosecuted murders of African Americans that are a hallmark of American history and culture. Thanks to the vibrant spirit of openness and hospitality of St. Columba’s new vicar, Rev. Vincent Pizzuto, this endlessly challenging conversation has a safe haven right here in West Marin. You are invited to join us.
Talking race in America with our West Marin friends and neighbors, here in a place that was neither empty, uncivilized nor primitive when Europeans arrived, is rife with tension, ignorance and opportunity. In convening these gatherings, I’ve been confronted with my own limitations and opportunities to explore my assumptions and expectations about what a progressive West Marin take on race in America—indeed, race in West Marin—might mean. This is, for all of us, a rare and practical gateway to sacred ground, community dialogue and connection.
The events of Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, home of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, are not, obviously, an aberration. They epitomize our current situation—a supremely ignorant white supremacist occupying the White House, perversely obsessed with doing everything possible, regardless the cost, to erase the legacy of America’s first non-all-white president, and a public bewildered by the jolting turn of events in just a few months. Yet these developments are timely; indeed, this moment offers a pregnant occasion for both a critique of and creative action around our inherited individual and systemic racism.
How might the Nazi and Ku Klux Klan sympathizers of Charlottesville react to the fact that American (and thoroughly “white”) President James Monroe supported the founding of colonies in Africa for freed slaves that eventually formed the nation of Liberia, whose capital, Monrovia, is named in his honor? Not that race in America is solely about the white-black dynamic, only that the foundation of our economic—and therefore military and political—hegemony is based on what Mr. Dyson calls out as a bigotocracy that “overlooks fundamental facts about slavery in this country: that blacks were stolen from their African homeland to toil for no wages in American dirt.”
Or, as President Lyndon Johnson, a white Southerner, put it, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
“Race Matters” is a free biweekly community conversation open to all West Marin residents and visitors of all cultural, ethnic and racial identities. We gather at St. Columba’s, located at 12835 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Inverness, for 90 minutes on alternate Tuesdays, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Drop-ins and donations to St. Columba’s are welcome. The next gatherings take place on Aug. 22 and Sept. 5 and 19.
For more information or to join the biweekly email reminder, contact me at email@example.com or visit the Facebook page, “Race Matters: A Community Conversation” at facebook.com/TalkingRaceWestMarin.
Marc Matheson is a writer and activist living in Inverness.