The Irrelevance of Race

More than a half century has elapsed since the murder of Martin Luther King. How did the nation react to his killing? The answer is easy. There was an immediate outpouring of near universal grief and outrage. And it was not limited to any particular race or political persuasion. Americans everywhere were horrified by what had happened and resolute in their determination to continue the struggle Dr. King had fought and died to advance.

What was that struggle? What were the goals of the movement he and others had begun and which his successors refused to abandon? It can be summed up in two words: equality and justice. Which meant, as a practical matter, that no one was to be judged, in words Dr. King himself had coined, “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

How quaint those phrases now sound! In fact, so positively antique are they that anyone reckless enough to invoke them these days is likely to get cancelled. What has happened to us as a nation that this is where we find ourselves today? To anachronize hallowed ideals on the one hand, then to anathematize people who persist in seeing their continued relevance? Who are so reactionary as to idealize relations among people as being both color blind and character driven?  

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Is the notion really that antediluvian? One would surely think so reading the usual media reaction to recent events involving white cops killing black men—and even young black girls, as witness the shooting of a 16-year-old in Columbus, Ohio, on the very day Derek Chauvin was convicted on all counts for the murder of George Floyd. Never mind the fact that the officer summoned to the scene actually saved an innocent black girl by shooting her knife-wielding assailant.  

But when one is in the grip of mania, facts must not be allowed to get in the way. For instance, in a piece the other day by nationally syndicated columnist Connie Schultz, who being both the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and the wife of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown carries some pretty formidable baggage, one reads the following: “I am a white woman who has never had a minute’s worry that the color of my skin would lead to the cause of my death.”

There are two things wrong with that sentence. The first is that it is simply untrue, never mind how sincerely Ms. Schultz may believe it. The second thing is that far too many people in this country, having been carefully coached by mainstream media to think the worst about America—indeed, the very worst about themselves—have more or less convinced themselves that even if the statistics indicate a very different outcome, they have got to go along with the dominant narrative anyway because, until they do, they are irredeemably racist.

Sadly, Ms. Schultz appears to be in that camp as well. “I try to take guidance from Black friends, students and colleagues,” she tells us in her anxious search for a solution to the problem of being white. But, alas, she admits, the only advice she’s given is to shut up and listen. “For the sake of all that is right and holy,” they tell her, “just shut up for a while and listen. To ignore their pain,” she instructs us, “is to magnify our indifference, and filling this space with our words, our feelings, is just another way to say, ‘I don’t see you.’”

It’s a bit hard to resist, isn’t it, reminding someone who’s just been told to shut up, who then spills hundreds of words telling us to shut up, that maybe she’d be more credible were she to take her own advice and, well, shut up. Especially when, having spent the whole piece “struggling to imagine what it is like to be them right now,” sweepingly admits in the end that “I do not know because I cannot know, in this whiteness of being. But for them, I will keep trying.”

Why exactly should she keep trying? Why should anyone try? If “whiteness” is a condition we cannot escape, yet because of which we are doomed never to understand “otherness,” what really is the point of trying? If being white is an essential predication of being human, then of course there’s nothing to be done about it save possibly by cursing the day one was born.  

This suggests, by the way, the pointlessness of berating other white people—indeed, demonizing them when they dare to disagree with you on the subject. It’s not their fault, after all, being white. And since cluelessness concerning people of color remains the fate of all white people, then maybe Ms. Schultz might cut us some slack. 

Not a chance. “For all my 19 years as a columnist,” she informs us as though from the heights of Olympus, “there has been no rival for the hate mail about racism from people who look like me. The message, sometimes cloaked in Scripture but often just raw with rage, is always the same: You have betrayed your people.”

Who are these “people”? And how does she know their race? Is that one of the boxes readers must mark when corresponding with her? One really has to wonder if maybe the only crime they’ve committed is to have unwisely drawn swords with Connie Schultz. It is not their fault, of course, if, by her reckoning, such people are constrained by their very “whiteness” to disagree. That rather begs the question, how exactly did Ms. Schultz manage to escape?

How different things would be, and far more refreshing, too, if only we could return to a time when, in the mind of Dr. King (along with uncounted millions who shared his overarching vision), people could be judged not by how they look but by how they behave. Isn’t there quite enough on that front to keep us all busy? Safer, too.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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