Chris Matthews shows us how to talk about race

Is anyone noticing the remarkable journey Chris Matthews (host of MSNBC’s Hardball) is on?  Now, I’ve never met Chris Matthews, although I would like to, especially as he takes a journey in the wake of the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin death and George Zimmerman trial. I write this not to embarrass him, but to honor him.

On Thursday evening, July 18, right before our very eyes, we witness a transformation about race going on in the mind and heart of an already-liberal, racially-accepting human being. Throughout this evening’s edition of Hardball, Matthews appears genuinely disturbed.  In an effort to better understand what happened to Trayvon Martin and why, he interviews Val Nicholas (Vice President of NBC News) and Michael Steele (former chair of the Republican National Committee), both African-American professionals.  He can’t believe what he’s hearing.  He struggles to listen to their truth about what it’s like to grow up and live as a black man in America.

Nicholas describes finding himself twice staring down the barrel of a gun pointed at him by police – having no reason for suspicion and confrontation other than the black color of his skin.  Mr. Steele nods knowingly, and then offers his own experiences of being targeted because of his race alone.  They both laugh about the “five block follow” in which a police cruiser follows them in their cars for five or so blocks, just because the color of their skin makes them suspicious.  Matthews listens in stunned disbelief, knowing that he has never had such experiences, and the discomfort in his face worsens as he tastes his own white privilege.

White privilege is the new (actually not new at all!) reality of prejudice in this country.  (See Peggy McIntosh’s classic discussion of white privilege written 25 years ago.)  Modern racism seldom involves using the “n word” or obvious prejudice anymore.  It is the systemic racism that is set up by the society to benefit white people at the expense of people of color. I remember being told in anti-racism training 20+ years ago that “getting white people to understand white privilege is like getting fish to understand the concept of water.”  It’s simply the water that we swim in, buoys us up, and sustains us at the expense of those who don’t reap the benefits of being white – and it’s hard for white people to get far enough away from it to actually see it.  Like going into a retail store and not expecting to be followed, like driving our cars and not assuming we will be targeted by state police, like being stopped by the police and feeling like we have every right to argue with them.  Most black and brown people don’t feel that way.

And in the wake of the Zimmerman trial verdict, we have heard many black men (including the Attorney General of the United States) recounting about how, when they were young, their fathers had conversations with them about how to navigate such pervasive racial bias, and how these black men, now fathers themselves, are having these same conversations with their sons.  Recalling the warnings from his dad, Nicholas recounts that his father told him that arguing with police will land him in jail, the hospital, or the morgue – not because of what he has or has not done, but because of the color of his skin.  Steele adds that it’s not “if” they get stopped, but “when.”

This is not news to black men.  But it is news to those of us who are white in this society and have never known such systemic racism.  And what is remarkable, as Chris Matthews tries to absorb this subtle and endemic racism from which he unwittingly benefits, is his willingness to allow us, the viewers, to witness the dawning of knowledge and the change that is going on in his consciousness and understanding.

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