OPINION: Race discussions show we can’t have a debate

FILE - In this May 25, 2021, file photo, a man holds up a sign against Critical Race Theory during a protest outside a Washoe County School District board meeting in Reno, Nev. Developed in the 1970s and '80s, critical race theory is a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism. It centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of whites. (Andy Barron/Reno Gazette-Journal via AP, File)
FILE - In this May 25, 2021, file photo, a man holds up a sign against Critical Race Theory during a protest outside a Washoe County School District board meeting in Reno, Nev. Developed in the 1970s and '80s, critical race theory is a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism. It centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of whites. (Andy Barron/Reno Gazette-Journal via AP, File)

Credit: Andy Barron

Credit: Andy Barron

The back and forth around Juneteenth and critical race theory illustrates that we have not only lost our ability to debate, but we have also lost avenues to have fact-based debates.

I’ve received a fair amount of emails on those two subjects, with objections almost universally trending along these lines: Making Juneteenth a federal holiday divides us as a nation, and critical race theory indoctrinates white children into believing we live in a racist society and their race is to blame.

Let me ask: How?

It’s certainly OK to feel that way, but feelings don’t result in reasonable debates. Even worse, we have lawmakers hiding from these debates.

On the topic of race theory — which I remind everyone, is a theory, not a doctrine — Dayton Daily News reporter Jordan Laird and I tried contacting several local officials who are on record as opposing critical race theory.

No lawmakers called or emailed us back.

I really wanted to talk to someone who could explain their anti-CRT views.

But the people who support making it more difficult to talk about racial equality in schools don’t want to talk about why. Shame on them. If you’re going to oppose the open discussion of race in schools, and you’re a public official, you should tell your constituents why. They should debate statements like this one, from state Rep. Don Jones, R-Freeport, who in a news release noted: “Students should not be asked to ‘examine their whiteness’ or ‘check their privilege.’”

Ray Marcano
Ray Marcano

Nowhere does any examination of racial equity ask students to do what Jones falsely asserts. I reached out to Jones’ office to get some more answers on this ludicrous statement, but you know what I got: Crickets.

Politicians go to their favorite cable or internet mouthpieces that lob softball questions agreeing with their position. That’s not a debate. That’s simply someone using sound bites to tell me how they “feel.”

Jeremy Schumm
Jeremy Schumm

I had an interesting conversation with Dr. Jeremy Schumm, a psychology professor at Wright State University, about our inability to debate. In short, it comes down to ingrained belief systems and conflict avoidance.

“If the narrative I’ve been taught and my personal experience suggests racism doesn’t exist or racism is largely solved, then I’m going to go with that belief,” Schumm said. “It’s a lot of work to have to think about (race). It feels uncomfortable.” And people don’t like discomfort.

Schumm noted that people tend to flock to information sources that conform to their beliefs, and when they hear something different, they dismiss it. Given that, according to Psychology Today, most people don’t like conflict, that results in a society in which we only let people who think like us and have the same conversations in our sphere.

I think that’s what most lawmakers count on. They make wild assertions not grounded in fact and count on their base to blindly follow along.

But that strategy is as wrong as all of the people who refuse to debate this issue in a meaningful way. I’ve seen one debatable argument against making Juneteenth a federal holiday. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, notes it will cost taxpayers $600 million to pay 2 million federal workers to have another day off.

It’s a reasonable argument. It would be even more reasonable if there was horse-trading and compromise involved (foreign concepts these days). Hey, we’ll make Juneteenth an annual day of observance but we’ll take that money and use it to help lift poor people out of poverty. Something like that. Then you tie Juneteenth to something that helps people, and it’s a win-win.

Clearly, that’s just one thought and there would be others better. But at least having a reasonable debate that isn’t based on feelings that purposely twist meaning is a good place to start.

Juneteenth isn’t news. It’s been around since 1865. Race equality discussions aren’t new and have been going on in classrooms for decades. So someone reasonably explain to me how an examination of systematic racism and how that continues to impact communities of color today is a bad thing?

I’m always happy to have a debate — if I can find someone who has facts to back up their logic. In the case of Juneteenth and racial equality, there are plenty of facts but little logic.

A good debate has advantages, Schumm said.

“When we were able to have respectful, difficult dialogue that often leads people to feeling more connected, so there’s actually a benefit to it. If we’re able to have a hard conversation with someone we care about, where it’s respectful and it involves listening and really trying to understand, typically people respond well.”

That’s what we need. People responding well.

Ray Marcano’s column appears regularly on these pages. He can be reached at raymarcanoddn@gmail.com