Widgets Magazine


Sense and Nonsense: Race, from America to Stanford

A lawyer family friend used to describe the best strategy his client could use in explaining past misdeeds as the “dead dog” method. The cross-examining lawyer asks, “Did you do such and such?” Our friend’s client responds, “Yes, I did such and such. And I did more than such and such. I did all these horrible, awful such and suches, and I feel so horrible and awful about them. Let me tell you all the such and suches I did, how horrible they were, and how horrible I feel!” The cross-examining lawyer gets tired of this lament and tries to move on to a new subject but the witness will not let him: “No, wait, I have more to confess, more forgiveness to ask for. I just feel so awful about it, and I can’t get past it.” And so on.


I think our family friend told the story with a mixture of amusement and cynicism. But imagining a sincere situation, the strategy reflects an earnest truth: Horrible misdeeds are overcome through deep appreciation and acknowledgement of their horribleness.


In American political discussions on race today, whites often express frustration with what they see as the inability of African Americans to move forward and focus on the future. Some individuals look upon slavery, sanctioned discrimination and the racial injustices that persist as a bleeding wound, but the mainstream looks upon most of the injustice as in the past and not something justifiably bound up in how African Americans understand themselves today.


The nature of our personal relationships should teach us the impossibility of overcoming racial tensions when most Americans fail to recognize the legitimacy of feelings of social alienation among African Americans. When, in close relationships, one person wrongs another, the moral relation between the two people is changed. If their future lives are bound up together (as is the case with fellow citizens), the wrongdoing will eat away at the health of their relationship. Only when the perpetrator comes to emotionally appreciate her past wrongdoing, to feel its weight and express a regret in proportion to the crime, does she help to heal the festering wound. The result is a cathartic experience for each, and a contradiction: The past is both memorialized and expunged.


If Americans hope to achieve a post-racial America, we must grasp a difficult truth: Our country’s identity is not distinct from its past any more than our individual identities are distinct from our pasts. We cannot divorce the past. Even if we were to eliminate all present-day racial injustice (one of the biggest “ifs” I can think of), we would not have “[bound] up the nation’s wounds,” as Abraham Lincoln called upon Americans to do nearly 150 years ago. Our failure to address the past in anything nearing the magnitude of the crimes is why emotional divisions run so strong.


This story should not be completely unfamiliar in the Stanford context. We see the misunderstandings here, too. Students believe in tolerance, yet many still fail to grasp the importance of community for cultural groups on campus, particularly those who have suffered past injustices in this country. We say that community centers divide when we should aim to unite, that we are interested in bridging gaps while cultural communities exacerbate differences.


We fool ourselves into thinking cultural identity can be based exclusively on common philosophical ideals, as if human beings are not partly contingent creatures, partly tied to our histories. We fail to grasp why wounds will bleed for new generations, and, in that context, why communities of people who share experiences are essential sources of strength and affirmation in the midst of festering wounds.


The real ideal at Stanford would be to maintain these strong communities while ensuring that cross-cultural interaction is common and meaningful. Community centers and dorms should not be exclusive, nor should students when making friends. The truth is I see this more as a one-way problem. Students who belong to cultural community centers do a better job of living up to this ideal. It is the mainstream that fails to make the strides necessary to gain an internal perspective. I was told that one of the major donors who helped create Stanford’s department in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity in 1996 was a white student who lived in Ujamaa for a year. That is part of what places like Ujamaa are about.


Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream was not just about formal integration. It was also about mutual understanding. It is to be expected that many students will come to Stanford without ever having gained an internal perspective into other minority groups. The shame is that too many leave just the same.


Did MLK Day have you thinking? Send Aysha your comments at abagchi@stanford.edu.