Friday, August 27, 2010
7908: Not Ready For Race Talk.
From The Chicago Tribune…
Conversation on race? Why we’re just not ready
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Virginia Sen. Jim Webb recently wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal titled “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege” that really brought home the foolishness of pining for a “conversation on race.” The headline itself was a device meant to drive conservatives to cheering, liberals to howling, and the whole of them to page-clicking and reading. Webb’s piece was about affirmative action, and his argument was much more nuanced than the headline — sympathetic to the argument for historical redress for African-Americans, unsympathetic to hazy appeals to diversity, appealing for more discussion of a seemingly invisible class of impoverished whites.
And yet the very terms of debate remained undefined. When we say affirmative action, what, precisely, do we mean? Are we speaking of public institutions? Do we mean any institution, anywhere, at any moment that takes race/ethnicity/gender into consideration? Without a specific definition of affirmative action, we don’t have much of a handle on its effects. Has affirmative action built the relatively new, broad black middle class? How much has affirmative action actually affected white workers? How do these effects play out across the spheres of education, contracting and employment? In general, debates about affirmative action shy away from such specifics and instead are used to justify our most elemental feelings.
Webb’s column was precipitated by the fracas between the tea party and the NAACP, the final act of which featured President Barack Obama appointee Shirley Sherrod as a woman robbed of specific history. Sherrod’s comments were edited to appear that she was advocating racism, when she was doing the opposite. The broader history behind her comments was also excised — the murder of Sherrod’s father by a Klan member, her subsequent devotion to a war against domestic terrorists inaugurated by her rifle-toting mother, the sad years of unpunished murder of black people in the South, and the accompanying pillage of black farmland. What you were left with was rather profound — like watching a tribunal in which the zeal to render a verdict was matched only by the zeal to ignore all evidence.
I keep hearing people bantering about this notion of a national conversation on race, and I have finally figured out why it rankles so. The source is the peculiar notion that we can talk our way out of anything, that talk is some sort of cure-all requiring no context or prep work to be effective. But conversation is not, in and of itself, a demonstrable good. Uninformed conversation is often a demonstrable bad. This is a country where any variant of the phrase “slavery caused the Civil War” is still considered controversial, and the NAACP, the oldest institutional advocate of integration in this country, and the tea party movement are two sides of the same coin. In short, this notion of conversation is premature, and we are not qualified to have it.
Expecting an American conversation on race in this country is like expecting financial advice from someone who prefers to not check his or her bank balance. It’s not that the answers themselves are preordained — perhaps affirmative action actually is bad policy — it’s that we are more interested in answers than questions, more interested in verdicts than evidence.
Put bluntly, this is a country too ignorant of itself to grapple with race in any serious way. The very nomenclature — “conversation on race” — betrays the unseriousness of the thing by communicating the sense that race can be boxed from the broader American narrative. It proceeds from the sense that one can intelligently speak of Thomas Jefferson without mentioning Sally Hemings; that one can discuss Andrew Jackson without discussing the black artillerymen who fought with him (and were ultimately betrayed by him) at the Battle of New Orleans; that one can discuss suffrage without Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells or Frederick Douglass.
It’s not so much that we don’t know — it’s that we aspire to not know. The ignorance of the African-American thread in the broader American quilt — the essential nature of that thread — is willful, and the greatest evidence that the spirit of white supremacy walks with us. There was a lot of self-congratulation around the justice done for Shirley Sherrod. It’s premature. The thing will happen again. Race isn’t a “distraction” from more important political issues; it’s the compromised, unsure ground upon which this country walks every day. Talk is overrated. In so many beautiful ways, we have the country we deserve. Any desire to better understand that country must proceed from the sense that we deserve even better.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer and senior editor for The Atlantic and its Web site. His blog can be found at theatlantic.com/ta-nehisi-coates.