A long-standing feature in The Ladies' Home Journal concerns a warring couple who have taken their problems to a marriage counselor. First he says, then she says (or vice versa), and each account usually sounds reasonable until reading the other. The Trayvon Martin case reminds me of those tangled scenarios, in that it very quickly-if not immediately-became much more than a question of whether George Zimmerman had acted in self-defense. It's a mirror held up to society, reflecting perpetual racial injustice. Like a wife complaining, "He never listens to me," or a husband grumbling, "What does she want me to do?" the relationship looks hopeless.
Two weekends ago John Derbyshire, a regular contributor to National Review, wrote a column for an online magazine that didn't help. Derbyshire, a naturalized American citizen from England, cheerfully admits to racism, though of a mild and tolerant sort. Apparently the Martin case pushed him over the edge. The tone of his piece is coolly seething. He sketches what he calls a white version of "The Talk" about racism that black parents presumably have with their children. It's mostly warnings about the unknowable other: Do what you must to get along, but be aware that they are not your friends and take prudent steps to avoid dangerous situations (for example, "If you are at some event where the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible").
"The Talk" achieved notoriety within hours of its appearance, with liberal commentators gleefully linking with nasty comments indicating that, of course, this is what conservatives actually think in their heart of hearts. The storm was such that National Review editor Rich Lowry regretfully severed the magazine's connection with Derbyshire as a form of damage control. That, as he doubtless knows, will not mollify the severest critics. But among blacks and whites of good will on both sides of the political spectrum, is there any hope for racial reconciliation?
The Martin case, taken together with recent random murders in Tulsa, Okla., remind us that we have a long way to go. In fixing a marriage, the solution would be to judge actions not thoughts, attribute the best possible motives to the other side, acknowledge past sins, and talk honestly about deep-rooted problems. That last one seems impossible. Derbyshire was attempting to talk honestly by his own lights-however reprehensible it seems-and it got him kicked off the masthead. Bill Cosby talked honestly about problems within the black community and he got castigated. From the mid-17th century to now, the relationship between Americans of European and African descent is the most vexed, tangled, and seemingly insolvable in our history.
And yet … a picture of my extended family includes several dark faces: in-laws, great-nieces and -nephews, my own granddaughter. Interracial marriages that would have raised hackles 50 years ago raise hardly an eyebrow now. If there's a solution to this problem, it will have to be one-on-one, vow-by-vow, step-by-step. And God please have mercy on us all.