Saunders

Men of letters meet

June 16, 2011 

It wasn't exactly Archie Bunker meets George Jefferson when Terry Duff of Garner and Jim Coleman of Durham sat down over beers at the Raleigh Times Bar and restaurant downtown recently.

Sure, they met amid charges and countercharges of "who you callin' racist, you racist?" but Coleman, a Duke University Law School professor and former lawyer, is much too soft-spoken and thoughtful to be compared to the banty rooster Jefferson, on whose mouth the volume control knob was always set to "high."

And Duff, despite showing up in a "Three Stooges" T-shirt - featuring President Barack Obama as the lead stooge - is too thoughtful and nuanced for the bigotry label that Bunker personified.

Remember two summers ago when Obama had a beer summit at the White House with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and the white police officer, James Crowley, who arrested Gates for allegedly breaking into his own home? Gates claimed he was a victim of racism; the officer denied it.

The president sought to defuse the situation, give the men a chance to clear the air and provide the nation with the opportunity to discuss a topic - race in America - that is much talked-around, little talked-about.

Race was also the center point for the meeting between Duff and Coleman. Coleman wrote a letter to the editor decrying what he perceived as the racism inherent in birthers' contention that the president isn't a true American. "It just offended me," he told me Monday, "the thought that the president felt he had to release his birth certificate to prove he is an American. There is no chance any white president would have had to do that."

Duff, a retired computer programmer, wrote a letter in response, decrying what he perceived as Coleman's knee-jerk "racist" charge. "It is very sad that so many people say 'racist' when they disagree with your opinions," he wrote. "It is even worse that a newspaper will print stories and letters with 'racist' accusations, again without facts." Duff, who moved here from Philadelphia to work for IBM, asserted that Obama could've ended the controversy earlier if he'd just shown his birth certificate when his citizenship was first questioned.

He concluded by writing, "You always learn a lot about people by listening to them, and often their own prejudices are reflected in their accusations."

Ouch.

The newspaper square-off between Coleman and Duff, both 64, was not nearly as dramatic as the one where Crowley handcuffed Gates, but it still warranted some air-clearing. Just as Obama knew, men of any ethnic or philosophical bent are genetically incapable of turning down free beer and wings or nachos, so that's the offer N&O Executive Editor John Drescher dangled before Coleman and Duff.

He thought it would be enlightening to invite them to a beer summit of sorts on the paper's dime. I thought it would be a good chance to see some sparks fly.

Common ground

Over brews, Coleman told how he attended segregated schools in Charlotte in a segregated neighborhood and received degrees from both Harvard and Columbia University law school. As a former lawyer, he said later, "I always felt that if we sat down with people who had different opinions from us, we could find common ground. I suspect that's true with Duff. I'm sure the things he cares about and values are the same things I care about and value.

"I think we could be diametric opposites on controversial issues, but still feel we're in the same country," an allusion, he said, to the cry from many tea party sympathizers that they want to "take back their country, as though it isn't ours, too."

Duff, in addition to writing letters to the editor when incensed, said he volunteers with the Catholic Parish Outreach food pantry and would "be glad to help organize a group of volunteers to go and read" to under-read-to children.

Even more than Coleman's letter, he said, it was the current contretemps surrounding Wake County schools that prompted him to write his letter denouncing people who are "always pointing to racism" when they disagree. "You see it with the debate over neighborhood schools, the president's birth certificate. ... I don't doubt that racism still exists. It's a human failing in all races, but sometimes people use it as a battering ram." Then, in a very un-Archie-like move, he acknowledged that some of the animus toward Obama could be racially inspired.

He said he was leery before meeting Coleman. "I wondered what I was going to get. Am I going to get an erudite professor or a black guy who was going to tell me how poor he was?" he said. "I got all of those things, in a nice package. We're the same age, grew up poor, worked hard. I think he's a nice man. We'd get along well."

An idea is born

Coleman agreed, but let's not be naive here. None of the nation's problems, especially the big bugaboo of race, is going to be solved over beer and nachos, even pork nachos. Of course, if you've ever been the last one to stagger out of the Safari Lounge at 3 a.m., you know that beer goggles can make everybody look the same. It's unlikely either Duff or Coleman swayed the other, but it was still encouraging to see how much commonality exists between a black dude who grew up in 1960s Charlotte and a white one who grew up in Philadelphia at the same time.

President Obama had the right idea with his Rose Garden beer summit, but he didn't go far enough. That's why, folks, I'm proposing making the fourth Wednesday in May a national "Buy a Bigot a Beer Day." Or a gin and tonic. Or vodka. No brown liquor, though: That stuff makes people want to fight.

On that date, call up your favorite narrow-minded, knuckle-dragging Neanderthal and invite him or her out for fried chicken, rollmops, matzo balls, chow mein, linguine, pimento cheese or whatever your group's vittles of choice. You can knock down a few beers and, possibly, a few misconceptions.

Want to tell Barry what you think? Call him at 919-836-2811 or send email to barry.saunders@newsobserver.com

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