Recognizing the Lott in ourselves
ATLANTA — Trent Lott's gone. But the opportunity to examine our subtle prejudices is not.
Watching Lott twist into a pro-diversity pretzel reminded me of my own discomfort around race. For example, whenever I introduce my friend Steve I always try to impress people with his high-profile job and the fact that he makes a lot of money.
I don't do this with other friends. Just Steve. Because he's black. And the people I introduce him to, like me, are white.
Whenever I'm alone with Steve the issue of race goes away. We laugh, talk shop, trade advice, make fun of each other. But as soon as we get in a public setting, something happens to me. Instead of seeing him as Steve, I see him as"Black Steve," and I start plotting ways to make him more acceptable to white people.
First time I did it we were at a party. Steve was the only black guy in the room. Nobody talked to him. He just kind of stood there, drink in hand, looking as if he brought the wall as his date.
I "rescued" Steve from his social ostracism that night, and many nights since. But somewhere along the line I went from rescuing him to packaging him.
Steve pointed it out one day: "Why do you always wave my résumé when you introduce me to your friends?"
At first, I responded like Senator Lott: I dismissed my actions as something trivial, claimed I was being taken out of context, that I was being misinterpreted. But then I took a different turn: I admitted to myself that I was doing exactly what was pointed out.
Instead of apologizing right away and trying to make the issue disappear, I asked myself some tough questions: Why did I feel like I had to "sell" a black friend to my white clique? What was it about my friends, and myself, that needed justification for a black man's presence?
The answers weren't pretty: I did it because I anticipated a common belief among whites that a black man with a good job is a contradiction in terms.
I did it to make myself more acceptable to white hosts for bringing a black guest.
I'm not sure where I found the courage, but I eventually talked to Steve about it. His response surprised me. He was so disarmed by my honesty that it actually strengthened our friendship.
I wonder how people would have responded if Lott had admitted to his own discomfort around race? If he had shared stories of his personal failure to rise above the tide of prejudice that swept his state in the '60s? I wonder if that kind of honesty would have disarmed the very people who disavowed him?
As for Steve, the weird part is that he didn't ask me to stop my "résumé waving." He knows it works. White people really do become friendlier once they know what he does for a living. But Steve thinks it's a tenuous pass to tread.
"What happens if I lose my job?" he asked me. "Does that mean I stop being accepted?"
I didn't answer. I just looked away until the moment passed.
I tried to bridge the racial divide by credentialing Steve to my white friends. Lott tried to bridge it by burnishing apologies to a black public.
We both looked self-serving and condescending.
Lott's lot is inconsequential to those of us who think politics isn't the arena for social change. The question was never whether Lott was fit to lead but whether we were fit to do the self-reflection he could not.
As for Steve, my intentions were good and the results were great, but my method was suspect. So I stopped it.
Steve's on his own from now on. I just say, "Have you met my friend Steve?" And if nobody wants to talk to him, well, there's always the wall.
• Michael Alvear is a freelance writer living in Atlanta.