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America Needs Some Joe Coffers

20 January 2016

Hardly a day passes that I do not hear or read something about the need for discussion of race in America. In spite of all the talking, I see absolutely nothing productive happening regarding race discussions. I cringe to count the number of meetings I have attended where this topic came up or the aim of the meeting was to engage attendees in this much needed discussion.

So, the discussion is needed but it is not successfully happening. A prime example is what happened when Starbucks conducted a “Race Together” project in partnership with USA Today newspaper.   In 2015, Bruce Horovitz of USA Today wrote:

This week, baristas at 12,000 Starbucks locations nationally will try to spark customer conversation on the topic of race by writing two words on customer cups: Race Together. Also, a special “Race Together” newspaper supplement, co-authored by Starbucks and USA TODAY, will appear in USA TODAY print editions beginning Friday, March 20. It also will be distributed at Starbucks stores.

Shortly after launch, the Starbucks’ project was ended by the company. Although Starbucks said ending was not due to the tremendous backlash against the effort to encourage discussion of race, the negative response was overwhelming. It was so bad on social media that one Starbucks executive deactivated his Twitter account.

The Starbucks experience demonstrates that discussion of race is extremely difficult no matter how well intentioned the effort. Because it is so difficult, I am convinced most Americans would prefer not to engage in the process. A primary reason for this unwillingness, especially among white citizens, might be that they are convinced their views and experiences will not be heard or respected. Instead, they expect that walking into the room they will already be seen as likely racist and devoid of understanding of minority concerns.

On the other hand, my perception is that the prevailing opinion among black Americans is that we are so oppressed and face such great challenges that the total focus in these race discussions should be on us. That is, talk about and look to rectify the issues that we bring to the table. Think what you will about the Black Lives Matter movement, but a statement on their website directed to white Americans demonstrates this exclusive perspective:

Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important–it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation. Given the disproportionate impact state violence has on Black lives, we understand that when Black people in this country get free, the benefits will be wide reaching and transformative for society as a whole.

Consider how making the black condition central and seemingly the only priority plays out in real life. A debate raged for years regarding calls for removal of the Confederate Flag from South Carolina Capital grounds. In all those years, I never saw any report of those opposing removal of the flag having their objections heard in a respectful fashion. They were simply labeled “racists” and the focus was totally on the concerns of black Americans and their supporters.

Then comes the ongoing upheaval related to accusations of excessive force and general mistreatment of blacks by police officers across the country. Again, the focus appears totally on the concerns of black citizens. I have yet to see an instance where a police official has been able to, without being labeled racist or otherwise verbally attacked, honestly speak about the police perspective on this situation. Consider what Jeannine Bell writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education in an article titled “How to Improve Discussion of Race in the Classroom:”

For example, many African-Americans see the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner as a sign of the not-so-distant past when the police enjoyed impunity for murdering African-Americans. They view the decisions not to indict as proof that our bloody past is still with us and that they can never protect their children from death at the hands of the police. On the opposite side, as I learned when I was embedded with the police department of a large U.S. city while researching my book on hate crimes, those in the law-enforcement community feel their safety is always at issue. They feel threatened by protesters and unfairly blamed when it is necessary for the police to use lethal force.

So, police officers are concerned about their safety. I have seen article after article where this concern is dismissed. An example is one by Nick Wing at The Huffington Post titled “27 Police Officers Were Slain In The Line Of Duty In 2013, The Fewest In More Than 50 Years.” I hold this kind of thinking belittles and disrespects the concerns of police officers about safety:

Following the Ferguson, Missouri, killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, by Officer Darren Wilson in August, law enforcement advocates touted the regular and often life-threatening dangers officers face on the job. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics list of the 10 most-dangerous professions doesn’t include law enforcement officer. The BLS said law enforcement accounted for 2 percent of total U.S. fatal on-the-job injuries in 2013, with 31 percent of those injuries caused by homicide.

By way of summary, my position is that the daily calls for discussion of race rarely result in actual discussions and where attempted they fail to result in positive or constructive outcomes. The primary reason for failure of these discussions is the focus is totally on the concerns of black Americans. This singular focus creates an atmosphere where the feelings, thinking, and experiences of non-blacks are not heard or respected. If non-blacks attempt to address their feelings, thinking, or experiences, their comments are discounted or outright rejected

The question becomes how do we, given the circumstances above, conduct productive discussions of race? “Productive” means discussions that, between races, measurably increase understanding, respect, cooperation, and the ability to work together for the good of all. My experience is the essential factor for productive discussions of race is facilitators who are committed to fruitful discussion. This requires insuring that that the focus is not on one group, everybody gets to speak, and all input is respected. Facilitators must be immune to intimidation and free of bias or prejudice.

That brings me to Joe Coffer. Joe and I met when we were both training at the Naval Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. Commissioned on the same day in August 1970, we went off to different duty stations. Joe is black and grew up in Texas. A graduate of McMurry University in Abilene, Texas, he taught and coached at Webb Junior High School in Austin for two years before entering the Navy. His twenty-year Navy career included assignments in five ships, one where he was commanding officer. He was also Commanding Officer of NROTC Unit, Prairie View A&M University. After retiring from the Navy, Joe went back to teaching, coaching, and became an assistant principal. From the very first time I met Joe Coffer, it was clear to me nobody intimidated him; he was goal-oriented and focused.

After our commissioning, the next time I saw Joe was when both our ships were in Subic Bay, The Philippines. In an early conversation, he mentioned having been certified to conduct race relations seminars. Our crew was experiencing some racial tension. My commanding officer agreed to have Joe do a seminar with some members of our crew. Participation was mandatory for those who were selected. Hardly anybody wanted to attend, especially white sailors.

At the start of the first session, one white senior enlisted sailor made it clear he did not want to be there. This was some 45 years ago, but I remember that his reasons were exactly what I outlined above. Joe Coffer insured everybody was heard, all input respected, and the focus was not on any one group. None of this was easy, but Joe was focused and adamant.

After that training was finished, Joe and I were sitting at a table. The white sailor who had made it clear he did not want to be in the training came over to us. He looked Joe squarely in the eyes and said, “Mr. Coffer, if I had had my shotgun at the start of that training, I would have blown your (very strong expletive) brain out. But now, I see things differently. Thank you.”

If America wants productive discussion of race, find some Joe Coffers.

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