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Let's Talk

By Judy Helfand

MOST OF US who check "white" when filling out forms walk through this world without letting the full meaning of our "whiteness" enter our conscious mind. We don't talk about race, telling ourselves that being colorblind is the best antidote to racism. But deep within we know that this conversation about race is one we need to have. No white person is truly unaware of the racial divide in this country, but we try to believe we live in a just society where things will even out eventually.

The spectacle of the presidential election last November illustrated just how far we have to go. Most white Americans still remain unaware that a large proportion of the uncounted and disputed ballots came from counties with over 90 percent African-American populations. Black Americans were harassed on their way to the polls, and many were denied their right to vote because they were erroneously listed as felons. While the media focused on chad and legal challenges, the racial angle--though mentioned here and there--was largely overlooked.

The media also highlighted the synchronicity of an election controversy happening in Florida, which had hosted a similar situation in 1876, when a political stalemate over who would become president was resolved after the Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise.

But we didn't hear much about the details.

That compromise pulled thousands of Union troops, who were protecting freed slaves from white violence in the South, and mandated that the principle of states' rights would determine the future legal and political status of African Americans. This paved the way for white Southerners to roll back the gains of Reconstruction, using violence, terrorism, and then segregation to prevent blacks from voting, holding public office, or receiving land as promised earlier.

This may be ancient history, and the 2000 election is over and done with, but we are still living with the legacy of these (and many other) injustices. Denial or avoidance won't open up the path to resolving the problems of racial inequality. Those of us who are white need to do more than worry about changing demographics that may put us in the minority in the United States (as we are already the minority in the world). We need to have those conversations about race, starting with each other, to talk about our fears, our guilt, and our responsibility for building a country where the coming generation can truly blossom in all its diversity. Sit down with white friends and family and ask the question, "What does it mean to be white in the United States today?"

Then really listen to what you all have to say.

Judy Helfand is in a longtime resident of Occidental. She can be reached at [email protected].

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From the March 29-April 4, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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