The cognitive divide between black and white

THE TIME of the week has arrived at which I look at some problem or other and confidently pronounce, as though I knew, just what we should do about it. But I have no solutions today.
    Today, I’m just sad, and solutions seem scarce. Part of it is personal. I just returned a few days ago from Pennsylvania, where my youngest daughter’s closest friend had died after a traffic accident. But there are other causes.
    As I write, my wife is on her way back from Memphis, where she had been, tending to family business, when the awful news came about David. She had to fly back there after the funeral to get her car, and drive it home.
    A few minutes ago, I checked on her by cell phone. I told her I was groping about for a column idea, and she said I should write about how lucky we were to be living in South Carolina rather than Memphis. She cited what she described as the painfully divisive victory speech Mayor Willie Herenton had delivered after his re-election a few days ago.
    I just saw the video, and she’s right. Lord knows we have our own demons here in the state that was first to secede, and would do it again if some had their way. But there is a rawness to racial tension in Memphis that is hard to describe if you haven’t been there.
    There was a time — 16 years ago, when he became the first black mayor of that city — when Willie Herenton was a sign of hope: a black man elected with both black and white support.
    It was the sort of thing we had wanted and expected to see for a long time. Back in 1974, when we were students at Memphis State, Harold Fordsenior, not the one who ran for the U.S. Senate last year — ran for Congress against incumbent Republican Dan Kuykendall. My wife and I were totally for Ford, even though Rep. Kuykendall was her Dad’s friend and business partner. He had been all very well and good for the folks his age, but our generation was going to change things. And that race thing? Our kids would only know about that from history books.
    So it was sad, here in the next century, to hear Mayor Herenton tell his supporters in his hour of victory that “I now know who is for me, and I also know who is against me,” and the overwhelmingly black crowd applauds, because they know just what he means.
    For a man just re-elected to an unprecedented fifth term, Mr. Herenton had a huge chip on his shoulder. “There are some mean, mean-spirited people in Memphis,” he said to much cheering. “There are some haters…. I know about haters, and I know about shaking ’em off.”
    He went on to tell about “two sad occasions” from the campaign. “I’m gonna let you know about the sickness in Memphis.”
    He spoke of a basketball game at which he had presented the key to the city during halftime, and “the fans showed so much disdain and hatred… and that place was full, 90 percent white.”
    Another time, while appearing live from Memphis on “Good Morning America” along with Justin Timberlake, “I get up on the stage, and it was 95 percent young white kids, they booed me on national television.”
    “But what they want to say is, can Willie Herenton bring us together? I didn’t separate us.”
    “Memphis got a lot of healing to do. But see, I don’t have that problem. They’ve got a problem.”
    We’ve all got a problem, and not just in Memphis. What is Memphis but a great, big Jena, Lousiana? Another town where there are no heroes, just a place full of people, black and white, all messed up over race.
    Mayor Herenton isn’t just some isolated megalomaniac. Judging by the reaction, every person in that room saw what he saw, just the way he saw it. And whites, watching on TV, saw a guy who was calling them racists.
    The Commercial Appeal, the newspaper the mayor dismisses as the voice of the white establishment, harrumphed that “contrary to the innuendoes he made during his speech, the 58 percent of voting population who opposed him can’t all simply be dismissed as racists.” No, they can’t, especially since one of the two candidates who split the anti-Herenton vote was also black. But Herenton supporters can stew over the fact that in the whitest precincts, his support was in single digits.
    It’s this cognitive divide between what white folks and black folks perceive, when both are looking at the very same thing, that keeps us from putting this mess behind us. And I didn’t just arrive at this conclusion.
    Somewhere — maybe in a box in my attic — is a manila folder containing a printout of a column I wrote in 1995, but never ran in the paper. I wrote it in a state of bewilderment on the day O.J. Simpson was acquitted. I hadn’t followed the trial and didn’t care much about it one way or the other, but I had found myself in a room with a television when the verdict came in, and a crowd had gathered to hear it. You know what happened next: The black folks watching cheered; the whites stared in silence. To me, another rich guy’s lawyers had gotten him off; big deal. But that wasn’t the way my black friends in the room saw it at all, and I was shocked at the contrast. But because I had no solution to offer, because the column just chronicled my shock, I didn’t deem it worthy of publication. I’d hold it until I could come up with an answer.
    I’m still holding it. And now, here we are. What’s my point? I don’t have one. I just think it’s sad. Don’t you?

14 thoughts on “The cognitive divide between black and white

  1. Waldo Medlin Jr.

    Thank you for saying what I have been thinking for some time. Like you, when I watched the OJ verdict I was stunned that some celebrity guy had gotten away with murder but I was appalled that black people cheered. To them, a racial injustice had been righted. I realized that despite what had been drilled into my head since I began attending integrated public schools thirty years earlier there still existed a huge difference between the way black and white people see things.
    In the years prior to the OJ verdict I had pretty much gotten over all of the silly prejudices that came with growing up white in the segregated south and had naively assumed that black people, particularly in the Columbia area, appeared to have shaken off most of the effects of racial segregation. After OJ I pretty much gave up on the idea that I, aged 43 at the time, would live to see a truly integrated society.
    Twelve years after OJ, incidents such as those involving hurricane Katrina, Don Imus, the Duke Lacrosse players and what you commented on in Memphis continue to prove that it will be many more years before our society will finally heal itself from the lingering effects of slavery and segregation. And there isn’t much more we as a society can do but wait for time to pass and new generations to be born before black people will finally trust the intentions of white people.

  2. Harry

    Your observations are right on the money, and often we choose not to deal with imponderables even if they threaten us.
    Over the years, I’ve come to believe that the best path to changing this divide is to go against our very nature. We have lots more contact among black and white (now chicano) people, but little discretionary involvement. In our chosen associations, we follow the normal human inclination to seek “people like us.” I’m talking church here – and clubs, and inner circle friendships and golf and bridge games, and tailgate parties. I have found that when we choose to closely associate with people different from us, we begin to understand some differences, but also to see that the differences are not so great as we “judge” them to be. Reconciliation must be sought – actively, persistently, committedly. Otherwise it will not happen. Are we up to that task? Not so far. Do we even want it? Thankfully some do.

  3. Karen McLeod

    I suspect that this divide will not be overcome until all of us can stop assuming that all of us of a particular color/race think alike, and can stop assuming that we can always trust someone whose skin matches ours to have our same values. Only then can we stop having an “us vs. them” outlook. When someone of another race scares or irritates us, we can accept it as that one person or even a bunch of people without extending whatever bothered us to that entire race.

  4. haskell

    Thanks for your timely editorial. I see no hope for healing or reconciliation between the races. As you know, there is now a civil rights industry whose leaders rake in huge amounts of money from grants and the government. There stake in the perpetuation of racial hatred is obvious. The Memphis mayor is a good example of using hatred for personal benefit. What is worse, some university faculty members are now often overtly racist, and are tolerated as such. For further reading, I suggest and

  5. Richard Hart

    Thank you for another thought provoking article.As a freshman at Columbia High School in 1964, the first year of integration in Columbia, I had very high hopes for the future.(I am white). What seemingly started out well has crumbled. There are several reasons which would take hours to discuss.
    I am now questioning whether certain people back then were right in saying that integration was wrong and would lead this country toward chaos.I sincerely wish my questions were not necessary.

  6. The 7-10: Anthony Palmer

    Excellent column, Mr. Warthen.
    I think it comes down to the fact that we have become so dumbed down as a nation that we react to that which is the easiest to see and “analyze,” however illogical this analysis may be. In the OJ trial, for example, it was far easier to break things down into a “black victim” and a “white racist police officer” who served as the face of the “white criminal justice system” than it was to actually consider all the facts that damaged the OJ’s case. That’s why you had that dichotomy regarding the reactions of blacks and whites to the verdict.
    Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina is another example of this (keep in mind that there are STILL thousands of whites still hurting for assistance in Louisiana as well, even though it may seem like only the mostly black Lower Ninth Ward was damaged). But because we commonly think of New Orleans as a “black” city, many blacks openly question whether the Bush administration would have responded differently had Orange County, California, been struck.
    Our state of political discourse provides further examples of this shallow and superficial thinking. Think of this year’s campaign buzzwords, such as “socialized medicine” and “cut and run.” Slogans, superficial distinctions, and glossing over the real details of a candidate’s philosophy require much less effort than critically analyzing the fine details of a policy. The 2000 presidential election result comes to mind.

  7. weldon VII

    The other day, another South Carolina newspaper described a crime suspect as having “brown eyes and curly black hair,” period. No mention of race.
    Wow. That narrows it down.
    But political correctness isn’t usually that color blind, else newspapers might consider something other than white injustice toward black people a story.
    Apart from OJ, that doesn’t happen much, though.
    Seems to me racists come in a variety of colors, not just lily white.
    When the arbiters of ethnic propriety finally recognize prejudice works both ways, the problem may solve itself.
    But, until then, columnists will worry when “black people will finally trust the intentions of white people,” never mentioning that the reverse is just as important, or even moreso, because white people, at least in the South, still control most of the money.

  8. Gordon Hirsch

    With all due respect, Waldo, our society will not magically heal itself with time, like some boo-boo on your finger, or just because you’re over the “silly” stuff. Nor is it so that there “isn’t much more we as a society can do.”
    In fact, I can probably make a stronger argument for decades more of increasing, MULTI-racial tension, so long as your neighborhood is not “their” neighborhood.
    Equality in America is about economic opportunity and the self-respect it engenders, which starts with education, which starts with money, which still ain’t an equal-opportunity commodity. When our have and have-nots are found in equal measure among all races, then we will have achieved color-blind equality. All the rest is just Capitalism.

  9. Kristin

    I live in Memphis and found this article via the “local news” box. His re-election speech was just what has brought the reality of Memphis’ racial tensions to the national forefront. It’s nothing new for us however. In his last term, he called out East Memphis residents as “white devils” and “evil” and yet still has the audacity to claim he is not who is dividing this town. Every decision in this town, whether religious, political or social seems to be baited with race. If anything we are regressing into segregation here. There’s a lot more at play here than just the words of this mayor. For instance, a local charity was denied the opportunity to accept several thousand kids into HeadStart because a majority of our Council said they wouldn’t be “culturally sensitive” to the needs of those kids…who are predominately black. The charity apparently had a majority white committee. It’s things like this that are holding Memphis down and causing moderate folks of ALL races to pack up and leave.

  10. Randy E

    I think Gordon is the only one touching on an approach to dealing with this issue. Education is the key to equality and the equality in education is severely lacking.
    I’ve been a high school teacher in 4 different high schools in 3 districts in the Midlands. Consistently I have seen the honors and AP classes filled with white students and the low level classes filled with black students.
    These black students, who sit in the social studies classroom filled with pictures of white presidents, are indoctrinated into their respective cultures.
    Look at the SAT scores, the AP passing rates and the percent qualifying for LIFE scholarships and you’ll see a tremendous gap. Education provides opportunity and the results are clear.

  11. Brad Warthen

    FYI to all, Gordon is an ex-editor at this newspaper. In fact, he was my immediate boss when I first came here as governmental affairs editor back in 1987.
    But don’t worry; he went straight and got an honest job long ago, so he qualifies as a genuine civilian. While I can’t say I’ve never worked with him before, I can say it’s been years since we’ve had contact, so it’s good to hear from him.

  12. Herb Brasher

    Most of us don’t realize the natural, “I’m superior” air that we carry with us. I’m a little bit more sensitive to it, I think, partially because I’ve lived abroad, partially because I’ve lived in the Scriptures (as part of my life’s calling), and partially because of reading literature on missions and anthropology. That doesn’t mean that I’ve progressed much in doing anything about my selfish pride–just maybe that I know a little more about it’s presence. Maybe.
    Wherever we go, we tend to think that we’re the answer to the world’s problems, or at least we come from the West, which is the answer, or at least we know where we can get the answer, or at the very least, we think that we have more to give to the poor people of other cultures than we do to learn from them.
    Part of the needed change in race relations is to begin to learn how much I don’t know, and much I need to learn from people that sub-consciously tend to think are inferior to myself. But I can’t really overcome that sub-conscious pride, and learn from them, until trust is built up, and trust is in short supply, especially after all that has happened over the centuries.
    And for a specific application that might have relevance to some: for those of you who help send your church young people on “mission” trips, please make sure that they go in order to learn, and then they might be able to serve.

  13. Gordon Hirsch

    Can’t believe you outed me, Brad. As a recovering journalist with 15 years of serenity, I thought that was my right.
    FYI to all: We rescued Brad from Wichita and brought him here to reform the Government Desk. “Boss” is probably too strong a word for anybody he reported to. Even back then, Brad had these passionate, ADD-like tendencies toward a blur of subject matter — and a total disregard for the Sports Desk.
    Whoever invented blogging must have had him in mind.

  14. Brad Warthen

    True enough, Gordon. And guess who else I heard from this week? Charlie Pope. But he didn’t comment on the blog, just sent an e-mail. He’s now the Washington guy for the Oregonian.


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