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home : opinions : opinions
October 17, 2017

The Publisher's Pen

Talking about race requires some thought 

I’m half Polish.

Hey, why are you grinning?

All joking aside, this is actually a very serious column that is inspired by the social unrest that has taken place at various protests, most notably the one involving white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to the death of one counter-protestor and criticism of President Trump for his slowness to focus his condemnation of the events there at those who identified as white nationalists and neo-Nazis.

To get through this from beginning to end without misunderstanding the message I’m hoping to convey, you might just have to give me the benefit of the doubt that I’m a decent human being trying to understand the millions of points of view out there that differ from my own.

That seems to be an art we’re losing among the shouting, but if you can’t afford me that respect, then probably just quit reading now.

Back to my ancestry. My dad’s side of the family entirely emigrated from Poland. To my understanding, this took place after the Civil War. One could rightfully argue that, by the time my ancestors arrived on United States soil, some of the more egregious and regrettable parts of American history had already unfolded. That would include slavery and the displacement of Native Americans.

If the nation’s history were a novel, most of my family would have arrived here well after the plot was set.

A guy with my particular lineage could argue that there ought to have been a clean slate somewhere along the way for me to simply pursue happiness as our founding documents grant is the promise of this nation. With not a bullet fired or a piece of legislation originating from my family from those eras, how could anything else be true?

Oh, but the waters never clear of history’s mud. Someone else could argue that, even though the Stureks (it was spelled a bit differently back then, but I digress) showed up on this soil after some of the worst had happened, the institutions and societal frameworks that emerged from the American narrative most certainly made it easier for me in the long run than perhaps for someone else.

There is no such thing as a clean slate. It’s never going to happen, nor be perceived that way by enough people to make the way we all start out in life “fair.”

I believe an honest debate about racism in the United States has to include the complexity of the issue. Just because there are massive parts of it that can’t be condoned does not mean that there isn’t some reasonable explanation for it — or even an argument to be made.

That’s where we get into things like reverse discrimination, or the arguments for and against societal mechanisms like affirmative action. There should be no surprise that these things will always carry with them a high degree of debate because our ultimate individual opinions about them are going to be a mixed bag of our unique circumstances, experiences, education and even our emotional wiring. Quite honestly, there isn’t enough space in this entire newspaper this week to dive into every one of those areas.

For example, a person could have a strong distaste for any argument that there is a superior race — or even meaningful differences among people based on their genetic lineage -— but then also have a similarly strong opposition against any legislation that seeks to control who might get hired for a job based on race. Many of those people exist, many Midwesterners among them.

But there is another form of race debate that isn’t about nuanced policy or struggling for level playing fields via laws. It’s not a debate at all. The people who are of the white nationalist or supremacist ilk are arguing something far more sinister, reckless and repugnant. They just think they’re better and that the world order should reflect that.

President Trump missed an opportunity to address that in clear, concise and immediate terms. 

Did he confuse the policy aspect of race debate with the abominable infatuations of these clearly racist people? I want to believe that’s what he did. Maybe he thought those folks marching with torches just wanted a fairer shot at making it into the university of their choice?

That’s an inexcusable disconnect for the leader of the free world. It’s the reason why members of his own party were so quickly critical of his initial statement that condemned “many sides” of what took place.

I’m all for “many sides” if we’re talking about what to do about our history to make today and tomorrow more equitable. Maybe it’s strong affirmative action, maybe it’s wise doses of it or maybe it’s none at all. Let’s talk about that with calm voices that acknowledge what has been ugly about our nation’s story and what could make the next chapters much better — and actually fairer when possible.

But that takes leadership. It takes a heck of a lot of understanding and patience. It requires determined and thoughtful communication. This time, 100-word statements and Twitter comments just won’t cut it. We don’t need our President to tell us what to believe, but we do need to know where the lines in the sand are and which side he stands on.

Now, who wants to hear a Pollock joke?

* * * *

About the “Pollock joke” thing. When I was a kid, they were fairly common. My dad, who is 100 percent Polish, told as many of them as anyone else and always laughed when a friend offered one.

That was pretty formative for me. I watched him react, and I learned there was no real reason to be offended. I think the word “Pollock” just sounds funny, and it makes for a great lead in to a punch line. Therefore, I never felt like it challenged my humanity on any level, nor do I think most Polish people ever did.

That doesn’t mean I think other people are overreacting when something insensitive is said about an ethnic group they belong to. I understood at a young age that there always seemed to be a much more cutting edge to certain jokes outside of the Polish ones. This little thought process here just tells me how complex race can be. We have to be careful when we compare things. Simple as that.

And now, without further ado, one of my favorites:

Did you hear about the Pollock who locked his keys in the car?

He had to use a clothes hanger to get his family out.

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