Essay: Can we have a true dialogue on race?

President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have convinced me that we need a dialogue about race. But where do we start? And can we get anywhere with it if we do start?

I don't even know whether I belong in the conversation. That is partly because I live in Williamsburg. Everyone here seems bent on being nice to one another regardless of race, and definitely more so than anywhere else I have lived. But maybe that's an illusion I have because I am white, a come-here, and no longer in the working world.

Still, as Ted Kennedy said, we must take a stand on moral issues. So I have been trying to plumb my morality during the past two years while watching the news about young black men shot and killed because they were young, black and, as perceived by people of my color, behaving suspiciously.

The crux seems to be whether the men killed were posing an imminent threat to others. That's what makes the idea of a dialogue about race attractive. It offers the possibility of reducing future incidents – at least theoretically. The sticking point is whether Americans, no matter race, color, or education, are ready for anything like genuine dialogue.

Admittedly, I have a high standard for dialogue. The word immediately takes me back to my acquaintance with Plato. I don't know where Plato stands in today's undergraduate curriculum (for instance, has William and Mary's new outlook ditched him in favor of Steve Jobs?). But the Platonic dialogues – the casual conversations between Socrates and the notables of Athens – have remained my idea of what a dialogue is supposed to be.

From the perspective of our times, an immediately noticeable aspect of those dialogues is that only a few people were involved at any one time. Unlike the Greek plays, the Platonic dialogues had no choruses whose sole purpose was to drive a point home in unison.

The characters in a Platonic dialogue were on their own and without a script. But they presented their thoughts in response to questions posed by Socrates, who was a master at getting people to probe questions in a rational way. Further, morality was always the top priority with him, or as he would put it, "doing what is best for the soul." Whether or not a definite answer was reached, Socrates always left the participants with a new way of looking at the issues touched on, and doubting notions they had been certain about.

There is a glaring difference between the ancient Athenian market-place and present-day media America. Any American is likely to notice while reading a Platonic dialogue that all of the participants let the others finish what they have to say. In other words, they actually want to hear what the other person is saying.

It almost seems as if we have lost the capacity for real dialogue on anything. Have you tuned in to an HLN panel discussing race and police? Have you listened to a panel of political commentators talk about a domestic or international problem? The participants almost inevitably end up talking over one another, and the point that any one of them wants to make is likely to be lost on the audience.

It seems that the vision of Obama, Holder and others about having a meaningful dialogue on race relations will remain a pipe dream. But in the meantime, go to the library and read a Platonic dialogue so that you'll recognize genuine dialogue when you hear it.

Miles Lambert is a free lance writer living in Williamsburg.