As has long been the case, the visual of America's black citizenry splayed in protest has elicited the standard calls for a national "conversation" on race. When the riots in Los Angeles followed the acquittal of the police officers who'd beaten Rodney King, it was supposed to spark a conversation. When then-Sen. Obama delivered his celebrated speech on race, it was the harkening of a conversation. And earlier this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, mean the nation needs an honest conversation on race.
The fact is that the nation has been having a conversation about race for centuries. There is no need to wait for the next impassioned response to a tragic, racially polarizing event to renew calls for a national dialogue. The problem is not that the conversation has yet to begin; it is that the nation is willingly ignoring the one that's long been underway. New calls for a national conversation are a tacit acknowledgement that no one is listening to the one already occurring.
Further, a national conversation is perceived to be some magical event where its occurrence leads to a shared epiphany. This could not be more wrong. These sorts of conversations are high-stakes dialogues that are ongoing and unending. The aim is not to "talk it out" in order to end the conversation but to speak respectfully in order to make the relationship more fruitful for everyone. It is never over, only productive or not.
When a nation converses with its citizens, actions do not speak louder than words; they are the words. When unarmed black people turn up dead and the judicial system does not punish their killers, America is talking to its black citizens. When hard-won measures enacted to confer civil rights, such as affirmative action and voting-rights protections, are slowly rolled back under the auspices of making America "fairer," the nation is speaking to its black citizens. And when black youth lined up in 1965 to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, or when they file onto the interstate to block traffic in cities across the nation now, they are talking to America.
This form of conversation is as old as the nation. And for all its faults, America has always been brutally honest in the dialogue with its black population. At its founding, the intentional silence on the issue of slavery told black people exactly where they stood. The Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Taney did not mince words in his contribution to the race dialogue when, speaking on behalf of the nation, he declared in Scott v. Sandford that black people, "that unfortunate race," were explicitly excluded from citizenship and the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Jim Crow laws and the terrorism of lynching were clear communiqués to the black population. These actions, along with the millions of daily dehumanizing deprivations of liberty, are how the nation conversed with its black Americans.
Blacks responded to the American monologue with actions of their own. The signal contribution of enslaved black Americans was dignified humanity in the face of animalistic brutality. When the nation went to war, black Americans took up arms in her defense -- fighting against the nation's adversaries and for access to the American promise. When exasperation boiled over, blacks broke laws that forbade escaping from slavery and inciting an uprising. Black participation in the conversation about race has largely been a balance of cool patience and fiery retorts.
The nation's conversation on race has always been characterized by black pleas for inclusion met by the nation's appeals for patience. This is at the root of the dialogue from the 18th century Continental Congress to the "Black Lives Matter" movement today. Any attempt to make black people full participants and beneficiaries of the American experiment encounters this familiar refrain: "Just wait; things will get better."
Of course, there has been progress in America's race relations. It is not trivial that the president of the United States is a black man. However, it is also not sufficient. The black experience continues to be fraught with inequalities and denied access to the America where mobility and prosperity are simple functions of sweat. It is not enough to reply to these extant issues with comments about the progress evinced in the end of slavery and public lynching.
There is no need to start a conversation; it's happening, and we are all a part of it, whether actively towards change or in passive acceptance of the status quo. Progress in America's race relations is undoubtedly a common goal between the state and its citizens. But it will only occur when the words the nation chooses -- that is, the actions it takes to create a more inclusive society for black Americans -- are spoken with conviction.