The caller disagreed.
I was on the air live with Indiana writer Janet Cheatham Bell, author of “Not All Poor People Are Black and other things we need to think more about” and a series of books of famous black quotations.
Bell, who is also the mother of comedian and host of the TV show “Totally Biased” W. Kamau Bell, and I had been talking about race. She’d discussed the challenges that came with being among the first African-American students to desegregate Indianapolis schools.
Bell, 77, attended Manual High School in Indianapolis. Her graduating class was the second one in the school’s history to be integrated. She received her diploma the same year that the Brown vs. the Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling altered America’s racial landscape forever.
I had asked her why the question of race still bedevils us in this country. We’d alluded earlier to the violence and distrust provoked by the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York.
Her answer was eloquent.
She said one reason was the subject is a painful one, regardless of which side of the racial divide one occupies.
Black Americans live with the weight of generations of injustices, slights and oppressions – and the knowledge that they are defined as the “other” in their own country. She noted that, even when the United States elected its first African-American president, many of the attacks on Barack Obama had a similar theme – that he wasn’t really or fully American.
White Americans, she said, struggle with a different kind of pain, of guilt over the generations of injustices visited upon black Americans. That guilt prevented white Americans for generations from having honest and open questions about race and racism.
A white woman from Kokomo called to say she said she disagreed with Bell. She said she didn’t feel any guilt or pain over things her ancestors may have done to black Americans.
Moreover, she said we now live in a post-racial America.
“My children don’t see color,” she said – and added that she had taught them not to be aware of race.
Bell answered politely, saying at first that she was glad the caller was teaching her children not to make superficial judgments about other human beings.
But then she got into the meat of her response, which boiled down to this: If only it were that easy.
Bell said that history is not just something we can wish away. Race is carved into the bedrock of the American experience. There has been injustice and there must be atonement.
But there is hope, she said. Bell said her daughter-in-law is white and her grandchild, whom she adores, is multiracial.
The idea that a multiracial child would not be an outcast – much less president of the United States – would have been unthinkable when Bell went to high school.
As Bell talked, I found my thoughts drifting to Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered almost 150 years ago:
"Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
Later, after the show ended, Bell and I stood chatting about the calls that came in and about the difficulties we Americans still have discussing race, much less dealing with it. There is a reason race has been called America’s original sin.
I told Bell how I answer whenever someone asks me if I, a white American male, am a racist.
“Of course I am,” I always say, “but I’m working on it.”
“I am, too,” she said. “We all need to.”
That may not be a perfect answer, but, at this time, it’s the best we can do.
More important, it’s a step – a step on the long path leading us forward from our tragic past.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.