One of the outcomes of the recent Eric Holder/New York Post racial “events” was a robust dialog between me and readers of both my blog and another WordPress blog, ChenZhen’s Chamber. Either as a sensitive human being, or as a black man (I’m not entirely sure which), I found myself defending Holder’s comments and joining in the outrage against the Post’s cartoon.
The online discussions in which I was engaged ran the gamut from over sensitivity of blacks, to the ultimate failure of the civil rights movement due to “coddling” blacks into a subservient position in our society. In these conversations I played the role that I usually play, the role expected of me by many if not most of my black brethren. I complained about lynchings. I complained about law abiding blacks not being able to flag down a cab in New York City. Despite my protests, a nagging introspection continued to gnaw at me.
I thought back on my visceral reaction to Bill Cosby and Barack Obama and Reverend Eugene Rivers calling on the black community to essentially get its act together. The man deep inside me who was taught as a boy that “if it is to be, it is up to me” applauded the call for responsibility coming from these black leaders. Yet I was conflicted, a conflict I wrote about in a previous post:
The first issue is whether or not blacks should castigate other blacks in front of whites. When I watched excerpts of Barack Obama’s “Father’s Day” speech, I must confess to some discomfort. … I have struggled with my feelings about this. It smacks of airing dirty laundry outside the “family”.
For example, didn’t the following comments from Reverend Eugene Rivers completely let white folks “off the hook”?
It is not—it is no longer adequate, when you have got a Serena and Venus Williams conquering Wimbledon, right, to argue that racism is the primary thing that holds black people back, when you have had two secretaries of state who were black for the last eight years.
What Senator Obama‘s done is say, I‘m taking the black community to a new level of understanding and responsibility. No longer are we going to trade in the politics of grievance. He‘s saying, listen, black community, you better than this. And we can correct the problems that confront us, because we‘re good enough to do it. And I‘m challenging you to step up.
So this tug of war went on in my mind about how we should talk about race. Then this past Friday night I watched Bill Moyers interview social conservative (and black man) John McWhorter. McWhorter had recently written a piece in The New Republic about racial dialog. An excerpt follows:
So what does our new Attorney General Eric Holder mean when he says that we are “a nation of cowards” for avoiding “frank conversations” about race?
The meanings we intend often correspond only fitfully to dictionary definitions. If someone asks “Do you have the time?” technically it would be answering the question to just say “Yes” and walk on. But there is a convention that “Do you have the time?” is taken as a request for the time to be shared.
Calls like Holder’s that we need to have “conversations” about race are coded in the same way … Nominally, a conversation is simply an exchange of impressions. What people taking Holder’s line mean is something more specific.
One might ask them: To what extent will this conversation entail whites saying that they are tired of being called racists and being policed for ever more abstract shades of racist bias, with blacks acknowledging this and resolving to do it as little as possible?
Many would answer “not at all,” others “very little.” Virtually no respondents would see the “conversation” as incomplete without the above.
Now, we might ask the same people: To what extent will this “conversation” entail blacks teaching whites about institutional racism, ensuring them that black people still experience racism, and that our having a black president doesn’t mean that white people are “off the hook?”
I suspect most would answer “to a massive extent,” and that the vast majority of respondents would see the “conversation” as incomplete without a substantial degree of the above. This would embody the lion’s share of the “frankness” in this conversation, presumably.
After all, if Holder were really interested in a “conversation” on race, he would understand that America is engaged in one year-round. The claim that America “doesn’t want to talk about race” is hardly uncommon, and has a dramatic tang. However, take the past few years: Don Imus, Michael Richards, Jena, and of course, the coverage of Barack Obama’s campaign, which included white reporters diligently smoking out whites who insisted they wouldn’t vote for a black President.
A Martian observer–or a modern Tocqueville–would readily see that America was rather obsessed with race. Certainly we are an America ardently “conversing” about it year-round. What Holder wants is not a conversation but a conversion. …
I suspect those who call for this “conversation” know the claim has become more gestural than concrete. Otherwise, they would state their case directly rather than asking to “talk.” Really, who is imagining a goal, an endpoint after this “conversation”? What, or who, would determine that we had finally “talked” enough?
If white people are cowards for not wanting to be called racists, there is a fear as well in people like Holder. It’s not pretty to face that black people will excel, like everyone else, under less-than-perfect conditions. This “conversation” would be social history playing out quite perfectly–but history is never that consummately fair. The Civil Rights revolution was close enough to perfect, and Barack Obama’s election was even closer. Now, it’s time not for a callisthenic “conversation,” but for making our way in reality.
McWhorter asks when have we talked enough? And is the conversation a true one when only the black man’s grievance can be the center of the conversation? McWhorter suggests that the time for talk is probably over … that there are actions that need to take place that are more urgent than talk:
BILL MOYERS: I brought a quote from the psychologist, Phillip Goff, “Psychological science has long known that words and pictures far from harmless can be the very instruments of dehumanization necessary for collective violence regardless of how innocently they are intended.” Do you agree with that?
JOHN MCWHORTER: Were we ever thinking that there was going to be an America where there was nothing that we could call racism? Because we are homo sapiens and we’re wired in certain ways. The idea that we could never have any biases, that we would never process people according to group, that there would never be some people who were more troglodytic on this thing than others, I don’t think that that corresponds to any kind of reality. We have made amazing strides. But the idea that we could ever have none? I don’t know. We’d have to be a different species. We’d have to evolve beyond. And as far as what he said about collective action, it’s just a matter once again of degree and likelihood. I think we know recently because of that horrible thing that happened in Buffalo, when you get on a plane, there’s a chance that, you know, something hideous might happen. But we don’t consider it significant enough to not fly planes. There is a chance, I suppose, that a cartoon of a chimpanzee being shot might strike a critical mass of white people to go burn down an all-black town. There’s a chance of that. I think it’s so small that really we need to be thinking about things like how much money and being poured into our public schools and how that might help more black children learn how to read. I’m more interested in that.
McWhorter makes the case that all the talk about race obscures the real problems and does not help to solve them. His answer to Attorney General Holder:
BILL MOYERS: So how would you begin a conversation of a frank conversation about race with Eric Holder?
JOHN MCWHORTER: If he was sitting in front of me right now I would say, Mr. Holder, Eric, whatever it would be, are you afraid of the prospect of black America having to move on without calling on whites to acknowledge their racism? Are you afraid of the fact that despite the nastiness of our history, despite the injustice of slave ships, the Jim Crow, and everything else, that we’re at a point where even though we’re still in a position behind telling white people that they’re racist is no longer going to do the job. It’s not that I find it unfashionable or distasteful. You’re not going to help anyone doing that. Are you afraid of us really having to take responsibility for ourselves? And what’s important is I would say, Mr. Holder, you know that our taking responsibility for ourselves will involve calling on the government to do things to allow us to do that. So this is not some bootstraps argument. But still are you afraid of no longer talking about racism? Why is it that when you made a speech you wanted to take that line after Barack Obama’s been elected president? Isn’t it time to knock this off? That is what I would say to him. And, and I want to specify. It’s time to knock this off because it is not helping anyone anymore.
I have maintained in the various blog discussions that race is absurd. No one is black. No one is white. Yet we devote an inordinate amount of time talking about it. What would happen if we just stopped? What would happen if every time a young black boy or girl asked his or her parent “Mommy, what is racism?” the answer was “never mind … finish your homework”. What if the black community truly adopted the adage “success is the best revenge”? During one of my conversations, my “opponent” threw the following video in my face:
How do we deal with racism? Actor Morgan Freeman says, “stop talking about it”.
So, here I am at great risk of being called a sell out by civil rights advocates. I’m letting the white man off the hook. Well folks, I’m sorry. I don’t want to give comfort to bigots, believe me. But I am beginning to increasingly suspect that the antidote to racism is black success home grown in the black community by dint of personal responsibility and absolutely no excuse making. McWhorter argues that blacks really don’t want a conversation about race. They want a conversion of all whites to folks who understand the “black condition” and are forever apologetic about their role in it. When all the hand wringing is over, blacks are no better off than before.
I think at the ripe old age of 47 I am undergoing a conversion of my own. I call it the McWhorter conversion. It’s time to stop the race talk and start playing a winning game. It’s not like we don’t have role models. Just look at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.