Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, a friend of mine named James who played professional football, once tried to explain to me the joys of a good hit - a bone-rattling hit. He said the feeling was almost deliciously cleansing like taking a shower on a hot day. At the time, I thought he was crazy, but I had two interesting and intense conversations last week that helped me understand what he meant. They were over provocative questions that rattled my brain, but in the best possible way.

The first question was whether the people who oppose gay marriage for religious reasons are necessarily bigots. Let's set aside the fact that President Obama, whom almost nobody considers a bigot, opposes same-sex marriage but favors civil unions. Let's instead focus on the many conversations that have ensued since California voters chose to ban same-sex marriage last November by a ballot initiative known as Proposition 8. Much of the conversation centered on the fact that significant numbers of African-American voters joined white evangelical Christians, older voters, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in voting to ban gay marriage.

And while supporters of same-sex marriage are mad at everybody, they seem particularly mad at black people with a kind of how could you resentment that we often reserve for people who we assume should support us and then do not. And that resentment has been returned by any number of black folks who do not see the fight for gay rights as having anything to do with racial equality, or at the very least, don't see it as an equally urgent matter. Can I just tell you what disturbed me about this whole issue from the beginning are the assumptions each side is making about the other.

It seems that some gay activists just assumed that black folks should see their struggle as their own, without asking them or making any effort to show them why that is so. And these activists compounded the error by dismissing, diminishing, and in some cases demeaning the deeply held beliefs of many people, treating conservative Christians like a problem to be managed as opposed to people to be persuaded. Where have we seen that before?

And on the other side of the equation, it is disappointing that many black folks whose ancestors have suffered through centuries of second class citizenship are not moved to even consider the cries for acceptance and demand for justice of another group of outsiders. I think pain sometimes enhances empathy but sometimes it has the opposite effect, making people self-centered and even more convinced of the centrality of their own needs to the exclusion of those of others.

The bracing conversation I had is about whether there is a way to move people off their corners when both have legitimate points of view based on core, many might say, sacred values. Who should go first? How does one negotiate over right and wrong? And that ties into the second brain rattling conversation I had with a few members of a group of activists and intellectuals who are taking up the provocative question of whether it is possible to truly eradicate racism in this country.

Not say, racial discrimination in hiring or mortgage loans or whatever, but racism - a way of thinking that consciously and unconsciously values whiteness over brownness simply because it is and has always been that way. The reason this interests me is that one way groups have often gotten over their own differences is bonding over a common enemy. In this country racial minorities have too often served that purpose, allowing people who are otherwise very different to unite over their dislike and fear of someone else. So the second question I have is, is there a way to skip that whole process or are we on a perpetual search for someone, anyone to isolate, diminish, and even destroy?

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues