I Would Like to Know What It’s Like to Write for the New York Times

We hear a lot these days about how poorly certain Americans understand their neighbors, especially when it comes to racial differences.

But if I can’t understand the experience of a person of color, am I any better equipped to understand a great grandchild of Irish immigrants who worked as domestic help in Boston?

And why not reverse the direction? Can people of color understand mmmmeeeEEEEE? Do they know what it felt like to put on a wool uniform with the junior high marching band to perform in the July 4th parade, to receive a B+ on a paper for Reformation history at Temple, to be rejected for a Luce post-doctoral fellowship, to experience the retirement of Mike Schmidt? Some might say that these experiences are insignificant compared to those of other people? That is a fair point. But it also raises a question about whether we only care about the experiences of others when they die. Which is another fair point. Death does put a point on experience. But how often do memorial services capture the entire experience of a deceased’s life. We remember the person as a great guy or gal and stay quiet about the blemishes.

When it comes to black men who get pulled over by police and die, should Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Georgetown and op-ed writer for the Times, be able to say that his experience is akin to that of Alton Sterling or Philando Castile? I have a hard time understanding how a man with Dyson’s experience can think that his is similar to men who live in very different circumstances. According to Dyson:

At birth, you are given a pair of binoculars that see black life from a distance, never with the texture of intimacy. Those binoculars are privilege; they are status, regardless of your class. In fact the greatest privilege that exists is for white folk to get stopped by a cop and not end up dead when the encounter is over.

Perhaps Mr. Dyson did not receive his privilege (elite university professor and writer for the nation’s premier newspaper) at birth, but that status surely puts him at several removes from Castile and Sterling and many other African-American men who live in our nation’s cities. It is also several removes from white Americans, even those with advanced degrees and who teach for a living.

The problem with framing race relations along the lines of what each of us experience, and that some can never know the experience of another, is that it leaves no hope or way out. Mr. Dyson will never know my experience and I will never know his.

But if you want to talk about law enforcement policies that lead to the mass incarceration of blacks, municipal governments’ failure to recruit and train people who will be good cops, or the lack of independent oversight of law enforcement officials (like even Jim Comey), that’s a conversation we can have. But one that always informs me how I cannot know what you’ve experienced is going to be a conversation stopper.

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9 thoughts on “I Would Like to Know What It’s Like to Write for the New York Times

  1. I would like to know what it’s like to be reviewed and/ or interviewed in that newspaper

    The historian D.G. Hart, who teaches at Hillsdale College in Michigan, noted in a blog post that the website BlackLivesMatter.com, a prominent one within the movement, expresses support for transgender and gay rights, issues that are problematic for conservative Christians. “Some who support justice for African-Americans and oppose police brutality may wonder legitimately what Caitlyn Jenner or Dan Savage have to do with Freddie Gray or Tamir Rice,” Dr. Hart wrote on the website Patheos, contrasting icons of the transgender and gay rights movements, with black men whose deaths have galvanized Black Lives Matter.

    In an interview, Dr. Hart, a member of the conservative Orthodox Presbyterian Church, said that he took police brutality and racism seriously, and that those concerns might affect his voting in local or statewide elections. But in general, he thinks the church should not be a political actor. “I tend to be a Machen guy,” Dr. Hart said, referring to J. Gresham Machen, the Presbyterian theologian who died in 1937 and was known for his belief that political participation could sully the church. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/23/us/some-evangelicals-struggle-with-black-lives-matter-movement.html?_r=0

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  2. a conversation that always informs me how I cannot know what you’ve experienced is going to be a conversation stopper.

    Biblical principle for today, even in/for the world: sentiment and understanding -vital

    Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 2 Cor 13 -4

    we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Heb 4:15

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  3. I wonder, actually, I don’t wonder, I believe that folks like the professor know their framing of the situation makes conversation impossible but that they have a whole generation, maybe more, of wihite americans who willingly accept that diminished conversational position and, so, rather than pursuing intellectual honesty, folks like the professor or Leon Brown and certainly Michelle Higgins simply press their advantage in the spirit of taking ground when and where they can. In other words, damn the means or the truth, I have an ambition and I’m not about to let go of the momentum to satisfy circumspect or inclusive dialogue.

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  4. Slightly off topic but possibly of interest to some. Ross Dugthat of NYT was interview by the “Co-allies” a few weeks ago. I don’t list to their podcasts often but this one looked really interesting and I did enjoy it. He is asked what’s it’s like to write/work for the NYT as a conservative with a Christian world-view. I can’t remember exactly what minute mark it is at but the whole thing was interesting to me. http://tgc-audio.s3.amazonaws.com/podcast/Greater_Threat_to_the_Church.mp3

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  5. This talk of experience really does make conversation impossible. Because if being able to show empathy and work for the common good means I have to be able to know your experience, it will never happen. The only one who can really know my experience is me (and Jesus).

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  6. Actually, knowing the experiences of those who are different is a conversation we can have when we ask people about their experiences. The fewer people we ask, the more we live in a smaller world after all.

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  7. Curt,

    That is true. But even by asking, I will never know fully what it is like to be you or Darryl or Obama or anyone else.This is why we need to be careful about making experience so determinative for having the right to speak.

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  8. Great post. . . but the pic of Mike Schmidt reminded me of my brief stay in Wilmington Delaware in 1980 when the Phillies won the World Series. They were baseball’s “Cardiac Kids” that year.

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  9. To use a past analogy, there is no area of useful talk about nuclear weapons between:

    1) one who supports a defensive-only strike and seeks discussions with the enemies for reduction and treaties; and

    2) immediately destroy all our weapons, fire the police and replace them with fiddlers on each corner, and spike the water supplies with LSD

    And today’s #2 is stronger and worse than ever…

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