Tuesday, April 13, 2010


The Banality (Yet Enduring Significance) of Race

In my week in Boulder for the Conference on World Affairs, there were two amusing moments and an endearing one.  All three were technically connected to the idea of race. 

CWA's keynote address this year was delivered last Monday by Army Lt. Col. Ike Wilson. The keynote was controversial for a few reasons -- both technical and philosophical. Wilson was essentially making a critique that the United States's misapllication of military force over the decades had actually helped sap its ability to exercise its power in optimal ways. Some participants liked the presentiation (which included Power Point) more than others.  Conservative Pepperdine professor Robert Kauffman hated it.  I was sitting two seats away from him and was expecting an implosion at any moment. 

In any event, I challenged the lieutenant colonel on an important point of his talk -- namely over Iraq and Afghanistan.  As part of his thesis, he called the former an "unjust" war, but also raised doubts about the latter because it had deteriorated (in his view) into a "civil war."  I got up and noted that Iraq is something of an "easy" thing to talk about in these matters because it is somewhat "settled" politically: One side thinks the war was "unjust" or illegal; the other doesn't.  Further judgments flow from that assessment.  Afghanistan is actually far more complicated -- precisely because of the broad unanimity that existed at the start of the war.  Nearly everyone was on board with Afghanistan because of 9/11 (though Wilson basically avoided using that phrase), so I wondered how does a nation reassess a war's goals on the fly.

Wilson's answer wasn't completely satisfactory, but for the purposes of this post, it doesn't matter.

Instead, it should be pointed out that Lt. Col. Wilson is an African-American about my age and height -- and shaves his head.

As a result, on two occasions later in the week in overwhelmingly Caucasian Boulder, I was complimented on my keynote speech (not my question) at CWA! One even asked me "how many others in the Army share your views"! Wilson and I had a good laugh about this near the end of the week.

However, there was a much more endearing moment coming out of that experience.  Another CWA participant was the Australian musician Tjupurru. He plays a wind instrument called the Didjeridu, or more accurately, a slide version called the Didjeribone. Tjupurru's appearance was a highlight of the conference, both in performance at the annual Tuesday night jazz concert and on panels (some of which became impromptu concerts themselves).

Now, Australia is a few decades behind the United States when it comes to the civil rights of its indigineous people. On the last night of CWA, Tjupurru approached me to share something he had told Wilson the day before.  He said that he, a musician without much formal education, was almost taken aback by the complexity of Wilson's keynote address and my question added to the complexity. However, he wished that he had had a camera to record Wilson's and my exchange. He thought that it was something that he would have loved to have taken back with him to his people in Australia. He felt that it was remarkable to see two (in his words) "black fellas" holding forth among (again, his words) "white fellas' world." He looked forward to the day when there were more of his people able to be educated enough that they could regularly challenge the unfair laws applied back home. And Tjupurru is a successful entertainer whose talent has afforded him opportunities unavailble to most of his brethren.  

I don't take for granted the sacrifices of a Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders.  However, it's not somthing I dwell on either. When I felt the need to question Lt. Col. Ike Wilson, it didn't occur to me that I was one black man engaging another on a topic at some wonky conference in Boulder, Colorado.  It never occurred to me that such an exchange would have seemed remarkable four or five decades ago in America. 

However, for someone from another nation -- where history has yet to arc fully in the direction of equal rights -- this was Wilson and I talking was a moment to treasure and remember.

In America, yes, we still stumble over problems involving race; it still means something.  However, in various places around the world, race still means everything -- and America's gains still stand as an example that can inspire many.    

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