From the Editor: Yes, we can be friends
I recently read a column in the New York Times titled “Can My Children Be Friends with White People?” and later, watched an interview with its author — Ekow N. Yankah, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University — conducted by Fox News’ Sean Hannity.
In the column, Yankah gave voice to his doubts that genuine friendship — the sort based upon mutual trust — can exist between the races, adding his intention to teach his own sons that the world is a perilous place for young, black men.
“I will teach them to be cautious,” Yankah wrote. “I will teach them suspicion, and I will teach them distrust. Much sooner than I thought I would, I will have to discuss with my boys whether they can truly be friends with white people.”
And, given the way African-Americans have historically been treated in the United States of America — slavery, lynch mobs, Jim Crow laws, educational discrimination and disparity, the list goes on — I can take little issue with his reasoning.
During the subsequent interview, however, Hannity took Yankah to task for these statements, saying that, in suggesting that white people are not worthy of trust, he is, in fact, condoning the very sort of racism he condemns. People should be judged on how they behave, not on the hue of their skin, Hannity argued, and in that regard, I can take little issue with HIS reasoning.
The fact is, both are correct. It IS a dangerous world for young, black men, but at the same time, and in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., people should “not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.”
And this, I feel, is at the crux of the race relations problems we’ve been facing for the past century or so. It’s a learned behavior.
Place a black infant in the same playpen with a white infant, and the two will, more than likely, instantaneously become fast friends — playing together, laughing together, sharing together. But place a black man who’s been taught to fear and mistrust white people into a room with a white man who’s been taught to fear and mistrust black people, and … well … I’d hazard that very little playing, laughing or sharing would ensue.
And that’s my biggest problem with Professor Yankah’s column: In his admirable and understandable desire to keep his children safe, he feeds the very monster that threatens everyone’s safety.
I remember my growing up years in Elliott, Arkansas (if you’re thinking of trying, you probably won’t find it on a map). About 200 souls lived in Elliott, and in Elliott, those 200 souls tended to stick together. We weren’t a mixture of black families and white families; we were a community of families — each dragging around its own sack of history but, collectively, a community first and above all else.
I remember all the friends I had growing up — black friends, white friends, Hispanic friends, Asian friends — and all of them were just that: friends. We trusted one another, and we took care of one another.
Many of those friends, I’m still in touch with today, and having known them — all of them — has made me a far better man and given me a far richer life.
So, I would answer Yankah’s title question in this way:
Yes, professor. Your children can be friends with white people, and not only that, they should be. For it is only in reaching across these stupid, arbitrary, artificial lines we’ve inherited and grasping the hand of another that we will finally grasp what those infants in playpens intuitively know: There are good people and bad people in this world, and you can’t tell the difference by sight alone.
And once we realize that, maybe we’ll begin teaching it.
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