Would we trade places?January 10, 2017 0 By Robert Wright
Amidst the “We will miss you Obama…We love you Obama” rhetoric that was expressed on social media this week, the idea of racial harmony was a key point in President Obama’s Farewell Address. He challenged Americans to heal the racial divide that persists in our nation and in doing so, he used a quote from the literary character Atticus Finch to paint a picture of empathy and understanding. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” he quoted from the To Kill a Mockingbird character. President Obama said that white Americans should acknowledge that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow are not a thing of past. He also encouraged blacks and minorities to have a bit of empathy for whites who have also “seen their world upended by economic and cultural and technological change.”
It is one thing for white youths to bob their heads to the beats of Lil Wayne and Two Chains as if the musical tie to popular culture puts them on equal footing with their black peers. It’s another thing to live in the life characterized in the lyrics. Could a white teen in modern America survive one year as a black teen….in his skin? Black life is not a 4-minute rap song…it’s a lifetime.
In the movie “The Super”, white actor Joe Pesci stars as Louie Kritski. Kritski is a heartless slumlord who lacks any empathy for his mostly black tenants of a New York City apartment complex. He refused to keep the building in any state of operation that allowed the tenants to have a decent life. So after being faced with a prison sentence, the judge sentenced him to live in the building until he brought it up to an acceptable standard of living. He could make no alterations to his own apartment until those same provisions were accessible to all of the tenants. Kritski experienced an Atticus Finch moment as he experienced life in the skin of his black tenants, even if it was only for a short period of time.
In the movie “Trading Places”, two stockbroker millionaires, the brothers Randolph and Mortimer Duke, manage a social experiment between the white educated socialite Louis Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd) and a black street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy). Their hypothesis was that they could put two opposite personalities in different situations and for a bet of $1, each life would be ruined. To their surprise, things didn’t work out as planned as Winthorpe and Valentine encountered a taste of the life of the other. Their genuine natures allowed them to overcome any obstacles faced in their station of life as the other. The ‘trading places’ scenario taught each a lesson in empathy and in the end, two Americans of different backgrounds became friends.
It’s common for American parents to participate in a foreign exchange program, allowing youth from another country a chance at living and learning here, and their children on foreign shores. But would white parents allow their children to participate in a “foreign” exchange program right here in America, with kids on the other side of town? Would a middle-class black parent allow his teenager to live in the home of a poverty-stricken white family? Would a middle-class white father allow his teenager to live among the likes of poverty-stricken blacks? This is the lesson to learn. The path to racial healing begins with us “tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face” as President Obama suggested. What would happen if we experienced life on the other side? Would we trade places?
*Read more from me at www.iamrobertwright.com*