Telling just the bad part of the story

Sam Smith – Watching Green Book, I was pleasantly relieved to see a film dedicated to telling a story of improved ethnic relations. If you base your assumptions on the media, it would appear that nothing much in this sphere is getting better. While the media is not at fault for telling the true bad tales, it fails in its disinterest in examples of improved cross-ethnic relations and so, unintentionally, projects a dismal future for them. We are not, for example, told of the rise in bi-ethnic marriages or the fact that Barack Obama actually spent more time at Harvard Law School than he did with a black parent. It was not just his blackness but his cross-ethnic understanding that gave him strength.

And is it really true that there are no police departments that have done a better and fairer job of treating the ethnic varieties in their purview? Are there no public schools where black and white students actually get along? And why so little mention of improvements in our justice system such as those developed by the Center for Court Innovation? How do we make progress in our dealings with others without examples, encouragement and exposure?

As a native of Washington DC, I have seen both the suffering and recovery. I went to a segregated elementary school, and when I returned to the city after college it was still in many ways a mean southern town. Yet in a few years, as blacks were becoming a majority in the city, and the civil rights movement was taking hold, things dramatically changed. With protest and resistance, yes, but with progress as well.

I experienced both the bad and the good. In 1968, I was editing a newspaper In a community where two of the city’s four major riots occurred, with buildings as close as one block away attacked. But I had also been in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and would help to launch the DC statehood movement. And when we finally got home rule and elected a mayor, he was black – as every mayor has been since.

In short, I lived through the bad and the good with the latter building the energy to deal with the former. And although through most of my adult life in Washington I was part of the white minority, I never once felt sorry for that. The bonus of the struggle had been a diverse community that got along with each other in ways that still seem impossible in many parts of the country.

But I’ve also learned that there isn’t much interest in that story. We live in a time where ethnic conflict is reported and analyzed but where improvements and successes get little attention.

And so, I was sorry but not surprised when Green Book moved from being a Golden Globe winner to a target of criticism because of something its author had once posted and because the black lead’s historic story was considered inaccurate by his actual family. Once again, we had found the bad more worth considering than the good.

It is not that you ignore the former, but if we fail to note and honor the latter, then we offer no hope for change. Life becomes a catalog of flaws rather than being balanced with recovery from them. We think we’re being accurate when, in truth, we are only telling one side of the story, blinding ourselves from the ways in which that story could be changed for the better.

These ways often do not include master strokes, but rather are little tales of people who found a decent way to do things, such as happened in the local Washington where I lived most of my life. And stories like that of a black musician and a white chauffeur who got along.

We need to confront the evil but not hide the decent in which hope can thrive.

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