We asked 3 national and 4 local community members to share their thoughts on the question:

Can we have an honest discussion of race in our society today?

We invite you to read, discuss, and contribute your thoughts.

Our lead contributors will stay the same, and new comments will be added daily.

John Biguenet, Playwright

Photograph by Harold Baquet

In speaking of the wretched public housing and disastrous public education New Orleans provided for African-Americans before the collapse of our levees and subsequent flooding of the city, I have argued elsewhere that “People who wish to think of themselves as fundamentally decent have to find a way to shirk culpability for the sins of their society, either by asserting their own innocence or by isolating the evil outside the reach of their authority.”  So white New Orleanians frequently enumerated personal acts of generosity toward minorities in my city and protested that our political institutions, resistant to individual efforts at amelioration of systemic racism, were beyond their power to change and, therefore, they could not be held responsible for the suffering inflicted.  Until citizens in a democracy accept personal responsibility for the actions of their government, institutionalized racism will persist in its pernicious effects as individuals delude themselves into believing it’s not their fault.

John Biguenet is an author, playwright, and an O. Henry Award winner whose play Shotgun was produced at FST in the 2009-2010 season.

January Holmes, Journalist

Last summer, I was sitting in a theater watching a series of skits when the woman next to me got visibly upset.

She took note of the fact that there were only two black people – both guys – as part of the cast. She took note of the fact that they barely had any scenes during the first act. But those details didn’t bug her as much until she saw one of the men portraying a thug, robbing a white couple on stage.

The skit was meant to be a funny, and its comic delivery worked leaving the audience in chuckles. But the woman beside me wasn’t laughing.

She was white.

And offended.

When the lights came on for intermission, she turned to me – a black theater critic, to vent her frustrations. She wondered how a production, which barely had any people of color in it, use one those guys for such a role, feeding into people’s stereotypes? He should have been allowed to do a number of other roles, she said –  why make his appearance in just THAT role?

She looked at me as if I had an answer. I didn’t. Though the thought ate at me for a moment. I wondered if a couple a few rows ahead of me (and the only other black people in the audience) noticed the same thing. I wondered if they too were at least slightly offended – or if anybody else in the audience was for that matter.

In knowing the good-hearted people of that theater, I told the woman sitting next to me that it was probably an oversight – an unconscious thought of the director – and that the show wasn’t over. We’d probably see the guys in more “respectable” roles during the second act.

She hoped that would be the case, or else she was going to have a talk with the director after the show.

Luckily, for all our sakes, the two black guys were seen on stage a lot more during the second act in non-stereotypical situations. Political correctness was restored.

When I recently read David Mamet’s “Race,” I thought of that moment.

Race issues in this country have been openly debated for decades. Yet, even with the progress that has been made on its behalf, I notice when life takes a turn for the worst – such as moments in Mamet’s play –  or in times of passionate discourse, our minds can absentmindedly take hold of the torrid stereotypes that have darkened American society. And from those stereotypes, which can lurk deeply in our subconsciousness, we lash out in the wrong way.  Every few weeks this scenario plays out in off-handed remarks from TV and radio’s talking heads and elsewhere.

The more we take an honest look at such subconscious biases, call them for what they are and renew our minds for the better, maybe this nation will mend its racial wounds more speedily.

January Holmes, a freelance writer, recently worked for the Bradenton Herald as an arts and entertainment reporter. Ms. Holmes is currently attending school in Atlanta where she is studying advertising and copywriting.

Larry Eger, Public Defender

I have been invited to share my thoughts on David Mamet’s play, “Race,” and how I see race playing a role in my professional life.

Much of what happens in the play as far as reviewing a case and the social discussion among characters occurs on a regular basis at the Public Defender’s Office.

Even a casual observer can see the role race plays within the justice system. People of color account for a disproportionate number of those involved with the courts. Criminal sanctions are also disproportionately imposed on certain groups, from the imposition of the death penalty to the sentences doled out for the conviction of powder (a “white” crime that generally carries a lesser penalty) vs. crack cocaine (a “minority” crime that carries a heavier penalty).

The same disparity can be seen in those who work in the court system. The overwhelming majority—the judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, law enforcement officers, clerks and media—are rarely part of a minority group. It may only be perception, but for the person of color standing beside me, it is their reality. Unless we acknowledge that race is a relevant factor we will never get beyond it.

Larry Eger has B.A. and J.D. degrees from The University of Florida. After serving as an attorney in the Public Defenders Office for 24 years, he was elected as the Public Defender for the 12th Judicial District.

Edward “Ed” James II, Producer/TV Host

For those who wish to believe that America has moved beyond the debilitating racial policies of the past; events since the 2008 elections indicates that everyone is not willing to make the leap. For those who would have me believe that race no longer matters, first convince me, and millions like me, that your racism is a recent aberration and not due to a lifelong sense of arrogant entitlement supported by a system of nullification and exclusion by brute force. The willingness of too many Americans to forget or ignore times of past racial tension, such as the days of slavery or the Jim Crow segregation era, is the major racial issue in the nation today. David Mamet’s “Race” will cause you to examine everything you thought you knew about race.

Dr. Ed James is the current producer and host for Black Almanac, which airs on WWSB – ABC 7. He is also the President of Full Spectrum Video and Film, Inc., which produces docu-dramas, sports production, and religious entertainment.

Stewart Stearns, Former President, The Community Foundation of Sarasota

Can we, in fact, talk about race?

Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, points out that our country’s demographics are changing.  He insists that if America is to remain competitive in the world market, the hope of innovation and change will lie with those that have been well educated, particularly in science and technology.  While many people are looking for resources beyond our borders for that talent, we need to be reminded that as the white birth rate declines, that there is a generation of talent in our country among young men and women of color.

At the same time that we are preparing our national supply of new leaders, we know that drop out rates continue to rise, especially among men and women of color, and how fully our current system has kept our country from fully developing the resources of many talented young people.

The only way we can resolve this dilemma is to fully engage in a dialogue about what we can do differently to bring an understanding of race and racism in our society.  David Mamet’s play “Race” gives us powerful insight into the internal lies each of us hold within ourselves that may prohibit us from having those candid discussions.

However, if you look at this objectively, what will happen to our nation if we decide that it is impossible to continue this dialogue because of the masks that each of us wears?  In my mind, the creativity lost in those conversations about race may continue to hold back thousands of young men and women who may have the potential to solve the economic challenges that our country faces in an era of global competition.

Change is not easy.  Those looking for quick Utopian solutions to these issues are going to be disappointed.  We have made strides in combating overt racism in our nation.  Overt prejudice is not what it was when many of us were children and sensitivity to divergent cultural norms has changed our educational system for the better.

However, more change is needed and change will not come without fully engaging in conversations about what can be done to improve, especially, our educational system.  We have a wealth of untapped and underutilized talent in communities of color throughout our nation.  We owe it to these individuals to continue the dialogue about race, racism and racial sensitivity if we are going to truly engage these young people in developing new and innovative ideas that will help us compete in the world.  The future of our country may be dependent upon it.

Stewart Stearns was the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Community Foundation of Sarasota County from 1988 until his recent retirement in 2010 and has been honored by a number of organizations in Sarasota County for his community service.

Carlyle Brown, Playwright

When I first discovered that David Mamet’s play about race and titled Race was going to Broadway my first thought was, “Why David Mamet?”  In an era where African-American playwriting is as rich and diverse as it has ever been, what can the author of such acerbic, caustic, white male driven plays as Speed the Plow and Glengarry Glen Ross add to the national conversation on race.  As Mamet writes himself in a September 13, 2009 New York Times article, “As a Jew, I will relate that there is nothing a non-Jew can say to a Jew on the subject of Jewishness that is not patronizing, upsetting or simply wrong.  I assume that the same holds true among African-Americans”.  And therefore why the great anticipation over David Mamet’s contribution on the subject?   One of the clues to what I regard is the classic irony about what we call the “racial conversation” is the use of such words as “discourse” and “dialogue”.  The social political history of race in America demonstrates such interchanges of equality between the two races rarely if ever existed.  The norm has been when white people spoke, black people listened.  And when black people did speak it was only to explain and justify themselves and their existence.  What black people said to whites where for the most part lies, because white people where dangerous.  They could have you whipped, lynched or taken from your family if you didn’t say what the white person wanted to hear.  It was a relationship based on power, and when the powerful and the powerless speak to each other what they say could hardly be described as a conversation or dialogue.  These kinds of interactions are our historical habit embedded in our social DNA.  When a white person asks a black person a question such as, “What is it like to be black?”, the black person knows that it is not a question as a means of inquiry and discovery, but a test for which the white person perceives a right or wrong answer of which that white person is presumed to be the judge.  This it seems to me is the role that David Mamet has assumed as the author of “Race”, and his authority, ability and means to do so is not because of any scholarship or social practice that may give him any particular insights into issues of race, but because he is an entitled, privileged white male in contemporary American society whose name is David Mamet.

The appropriation of the African-American narrative is a long and continuous phenomenon in American culture.  From the minstrel shows to the American musical, the Amos and Andy show on radio, the Jeffersons on television, Black exploitation movies to popular gangster rap and hip hop, someone else is always telling, packaging, and marketing African-American stories.  For all the achievements African-Americans have made in American life we still have not attained sufficient social and political capital to tell and profit from our own stories.  When true social equality arrives, when young black men now by the hundreds of thousands who are disproportionately held in prisons are led to healthy, productive lives, when the myth of the narrative of what it is to be an African-American is completely eradicated and the question whites ask us is not what it mean to be black, but what does it mean to be human, then and only then can we have an honest dialogue about race.

Carlyle Brown is a playwright/performer and artistic director of Carlyle Brown & Company, which he founded in Minneapolis in 2002.

Judge Charles Williams, Circuit Judge

Tennis great Arthur Ashe, who was diagnosed with AIDS,  remarked when someone commented that this must be the most difficult thing he’s ever had to deal with stated to the person, “No, not really, being Black in America has been much more difficult for me than this illness.”.  So begins this conversation about Race.  In America race has been the elephant in the room throughout the course of history.  From the exclusion of African-American’s  in the original Bill of Rights throughout the course of our history in to modern day, this country has talked around this issue in the hope that perhaps this country can ignore it enough that the issue may go away.  Those of us with any sense of history know that it not that simple.  Our reluctance as a country to try not to acknowledge and accept the differences of our American quilt has led to a sometimes irrational reaction to race by some of our citizens.  The complexities come from our reluctance to acknowledge and accept our differences and the idea that we are all one people united under the same flag, one nation, indivisible. This duality in our thinking prevents honest dialogue about inherent problems in our culture and society that will not be fixed until we can all agree that we have a problem that needs fixing, or perhaps we should just ignore it and hope that time will make this issue moot.  The beginning of the solution for all this is a candid conversation.  It is hoped this play begins that conversation honestly.

Judge Charles Williams was appointed by Governor Lawton Chiles as a Circuit Judge for the Twelfth Judicial Court in November of 1997. He has been awarded the Community Service Award from the Manatee Bar Association, the Manatee County NAACP-Public Service Award, and the 15th Annual Edgar H. Price, Jr. Humanitarian Award.