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Commentary

Do you know the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing?"

Jack Lessenberry

Last night I talked to a woman in her 40s who grew up in a rural town in the northern Lower Peninsula and then lived for a couple decades in Boston and New York, before coming to Detroit for a job.

I asked what struck her as being most different about this place, and she replied, without a second’s hesitation, “the racism.” Then she added, “Not just the racism – the reluctance to face it openly, to have a real conversation about race.”

I knew what she meant. Detroit, by which I mean the entire metropolitan area, certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on issues related to race.

Just think of the cases of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York. As I said the other day, I don’t propose to attempt to take sides or to sort either of those cases out.

However, ask yourself this: Do you think a white guy in a suit would be placed in a life-threatening chokehold if the cops suspected him of improperly selling single cigarettes?

You know the answer. But the problem with these cases is that they serve as a substitute for thinking deeply about the real problem, which goes far behind any particular act of injustice.

Think about this: Black people in America have to live in two worlds; white people get by with one. The dominant mainstream media and entertainment culture is a white one.

Blacks, at least those in the labor force, have to function in it to survive. But they also have their own churches, societies, and traditions, which almost no white people know anything about.

Here’s a very small example: Go into a classroom or an office where blacks and whites study or work together.

Ask a black woman if she knows the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

She’ll look at you as if you’d said, “Do you know what color grass is?” Then ask the white man next to her if he knows that song. Odds are he’ll never have heard of it.

Just about every black person in America knows that song, which used to be called the “Negro National Anthem.” Virtually no white people do, except for those with deep ties to the African-American community. We are two cultures.

What very few of us admit is how different they are, or how deeply flawed each is, or how deep the gulf is between them.

There are some encouraging signs. I have been deeply impressed by the willingness to rise above race in political matters Detroit’s African-American community has shown in recent years.

Not long before he resigned, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick tried to make his disgrace about race. Black judges and jurors ignored this and sent him off to prison.

Black voters in Detroit elected a white mayor from the suburbs because they thought he’d be best able to get the lights back on and make the cops come.

They rose above their prejudices. But too many of us don’t, preferring to slip back in to the comfortable generalizations that are a substitute for thinking.

We can do better than that. And if we want a future for Michigan, we are going to have to.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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