The separate water fountains are long gone. So are the separate schools, the separate lunch counters and most of the other contortions meant to keep black and white people apart when segregation was the law of this part of the land.
But for all the progress we’ve made in fostering some semblance of equality in the past 50 years, we remain prisoners of intellectual segregation.
Too many white people and black people still can’t understand each other. Usually, it’s not about overt racism, although there are still too many people whose skin looks like mine who believe they’re superior to people endowed with darker flesh tones. Some try to define it otherwise, but that’s the fundamental definition of racism: the belief in the superiority of one race over another.
Often, that belief is lodged in our subconscious. We can’t see it or feel it. We don’t know it’s there. The Implicit Assumption Test, developed by Project Implicit at Harvard University, is helpful, if you want to look deeply into that mirror. Google it, if you’re interested. Or read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.” It’s eye-opening and great writing.
Or if you want to pull down your own intellectual safety shields and take an honest look, consider Fayetteville’s struggle with its city seal. The dye of segregated thinking is all over it.
Some of our African-American leaders want to change the seal, because it includes the image of the Market House. For them, and for many Fayetteville residents, it’s a symbol of slavery, because slaves were once sold there. It wasn’t exclusively a slave market, but human beings were indeed traded there, as if they were just another head of cattle. It was not a glorious chapter of American history (and yes, I know, it was more than a Southern thing – Northern business, industry and banking supported it and made a fortune on it).
A lot of black people feel it in their gut whenever they look at the Market House – especially people whose great-grandparents were sold there. I’ve talked with some of them. The pain they feel is real.
But for many of the city’s white residents, it’s a puzzlement. Slavery was generations ago, they say – abolished more than 150 years ago. Isn’t it time we got beyond that?
Perhaps we could, if we could get beyond the fact that the two races are still treated differently in many venues. But really, we shouldn’t get beyond it. We should never forget what happened, never get over the fact that our ancestors participated in what amounted to a form of genocide.
If you had a Jewish friends whose grandparents were killed in Auschwitz, would you tell them to just “get over” their revulsion for Nazi insignia? No, I think you’d understand their feelings.
So why can’t we white folks understand that for many of our black neighbors, using the Market House on our city logo is like slapping them in the face?
And why can’t we understand that responding to their objections to the logo by metaphorically patting them on the head and saying, “There, there, you just don’t understand,” is insulting, paternalistic, rude and – just maybe – unconsciously racist, or at least perceived that way?
Now, not all African-Americans in Fayetteville feel that way about the Market House. Some don’t care that it’s on the city seal. It’s just another historic building for them. But others see deep pain when their city uses what was once an occasional slave market as the city’s chosen representation.
At the very least, what we have here is a dramatic failure of empathy.
But if you’d prefer not to even consider it that way, ask yourself this: What business in the world would doggedly insist on using a logo that it knew caused pain and even revulsion in at least a quarter, maybe more, of its customers?
The answer, I’m afraid, is that only a business determined to fail would do that.
Let’s not fail. Let’s grow a little empathy in ourselves and find a city logo that unites us. We shouldn’t need focus groups to learn that we need to solve this problem.
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Tim White is the Fayetteville Observer’s editorial page editor.