A conversation about race has unfolded for 19 years in a Denver church basement – but they’re still figuring out how to talk about Trump

People of color are familiar with the upset now felt by many white liberals. “Historically, this is not unfamiliar territory at all,” said Carolyn Love.
8 min. read
The Second Tuesday Race Forum’s first meeting after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

The Second Tuesday Race Forum's first meeting after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

They gathered on couches and overstuffed armchairs around a green shag carpet, 68 people this month. They'd done this nearly 200 times -- the Second Tuesday Race Forum, going strong since 1997.

"We've been having these conversations for 17, 18 years," said Harold Fields, the moderator of this long-running group. " ... As it turns out, nobody wanted to stop talking."

This month it was on the third Tuesday, though, because the second Tuesday of November was when Donald Trump was elected.

I suspect I was the youngest in the room at 29. I saw a group that has figured out how to sustain a years-long interracial conversation -- but I learned that they face the same divide as the rest of us. For Susan Carroll, who is white, it felt as if people are working on opposite sides of reality, separated by a mess of fact and fiction.

"How do I know what's true? I don't know what anybody else is using as a media source. I was just repeating what I saw on television," she said. "I don't know how to talk to a Trump supporter. I don't think I wanted to before. I'm not sure I do now."

This group clearly has spent years laying the groundwork for this kind of conversation. They're comfortable enough to loudly demand that people speak into the microphone, but they've adapted some clear conversational guidelines, often stopping to acknowledge the privileges they did or didn't grow up with or pausing to redirect a question to the group most affected by it.

Trump’s rhetoric has been the opposite of considered. He’s beloved by his followers for “saying what he thinks,” even when what he thinks is that Mexico is sending "rapists" to the United States among its emigrants. Some of his most fervent followers have plastered the internet with neo-Nazi imagery, and they’ve gloated when others can’t “take it.” Trump's chief strategist and policy advisor Stephen Bannon, ran a website that tags stories about "black crime," and published the headline "How Muslim migrants devastate a community," among other provocations.

In the church basement, one of the youngest men in the group -- James, whose last name I didn't get -- expressed an anger that the older men didn't.

"I feel like their votes for Trump are an act of defiance. I feel like they're letting us know they don't want to listen to us ... They would never show up at a place like this," said James, who is white. "One side wants to listen, one side voted for a white supremacist."

And yet there was at least one Trump voter in the room.

That person "for some reason elected not to reveal themselves," Fields told me later.

He doesn't know who it was – the person apparently revealed their vote during small-group conversations at the beginning of the meeting, and the forum hadn't really talked directly about Trump before. Even in the same basement, it seems to me, we can't seem to get across this divide. 

People said they were "perplexed," blown away by the results.

"I'm feeling very old and very tired," one woman told the circle.

For Kizzy Kelley, this was the unmasking of a new era.

"Would we have the discussion about racism, or just sweep it under the floor?" asked Kelley, an immigrant from the Caribbean. "OK, now that we know, what we gonna do?”

A common theme in the conversation: People of color are well familiar with the upset just now felt by many white liberals. "Historically, this is not unfamiliar territory at all," said Carolyn Love, who is black. "The whole framing of this election was around difference. It was not about policy."

The moderator sees fear on both sides.

People of color and whites alike can be ostracized if they start talking, Fields said, about the role white dominance and race plays in shaping our society. "You have to stuff it down because it isn't safe," he said.

Other white people, meanwhile, do not encounter many non-white people, he said, and have no neutral ground to start talking about race. They're not "supported in their efforts to deal with the racism around them, within their families, within themselves," he said to me later. When the group first started meeting, he said, its white members were afraid even to travel to Five Points for its meetings.

More than that, Fields sees that many white people have little opportunity to even interact with people of color, much less to comfortably discuss centuries of oppression enforced by a white majority. (Fields, 70, grew up during the era of segregation in a black Tulsa neighborhood where whites had massacred some 300 people just a few decades earlier.)

"I think people have got a great fear, one of the fears is being called a racist ... That kind of doesn’t fit with their image of 'I’m a good person.' ... And most people are good people. ... I think we have to focus a lot more on the outcomes and not so much on the intent."

That younger guy, James, seemed to catch himself in what he was saying, pausing as the room quieted. "Yes, speak in love," he added, "but don't shy away from the truth."

Certainly, this country and this city have been electrified by this election. Quite a few people said the post-election events they went to had quadrupled their expected attendance, from a Stand Up for Racial Justice meeting to an impromptu meeting of the Abrahamic faiths. A newcomer to Denver ended up at the forefront of thousands of protesting people with a message of peace. 

One question is whether and how that movement spreads beyond a city where Clinton won by 50 points. Fields suggests that “we’ve got a responsibility to help people work through things and to see a better way to deal with the realities and a way to create a world that isn’t us vs. them.” In an article for Vox, German Lopez makes a similar suggestion: that people become defensive and withdraw when they’re criticized as a racist, but respond positively to conversations that help them understand other people.

"We may be going through a period of retrenchment for a while," Fields said. "If Hillary had won the election, I think we'd still need to have this conversation tonight."

How to start your own conversation:

The Second Tuesday Race Forum runs nearly at capacity. It is open to all, but Fields is worried that too much attention will grow it into a lecture instead of an exchange.

"Right now, we’re trying to synchronize and pass the baton to other people, to keep it going. It is a long process," he said. "People of color, many have been patient for a damn long time, and we’re in it for the long haul."

With that in mind, maybe you should start your own group instead. If you do, please let me know.

Start small. "You know, you could start this over dessert, in a meal, around the kitchen table, around the dining room table," Fields said. He thinks the key to Second Tuesday's longevity is that it has grown naturally, through friends of friends and social networks.

The way that I’ve grown this group is through connections. People have relationships already with somebody, and they bring somebody to the group, as opposed to just putting out a banner,” he said.

Be persistent. Clara Villarosa, owner of the Hue-Man Experience Bookstore, and Joyce Meskis, founder of the Tattered Cover, were the "founding mothers" of Second Tuesdays. Their businesses collaborated to host meetings for many of those early years, and their persistence paid off.

Don't say, "'We’re going to have this one conversation.' That’s doomed to failure. It’s a waste of time," Fields advised. "You need to get people to make a commitment: 'I'm going to do this several times.'" This can defuse some of the conversational traps that people fear, and it can also simply get people comfortable talking to strangers in unfamiliar surroundings.

"When we first started having the conversations and were meeting at the Hue-man Experience (since closed), there were some white folks who were really kind of nervous about coming over to Five Points. ... They hung in there."

Tell stories. Encourage people to share something about themselves. "This is how the world I grew up with raised me or supported me," Fields says. "The first time, you’re not willing to share so deeply. You share just a little bit. And then, later on, you get into more depth."

Establish structure. Having a pre-selected topic and sharing reading or viewing material, especially documentaries, will make the conversation come easier. Over time, it can establish a shared vocabulary and some historical touchstones.

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