How NOT To Talk About Race

This week brings two reminders of the fact that it is possible to make statements that are both a) intellectually defensible, and b) really, really stupid.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether Americans focus too much on race, or not enough. Attorney General Eric Holder believes that to make progress in race relations, “we must feel comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.”

OTOH, Jonah Goldberg argues today that:

Holder is wrong. America talks about race incessantly, in classrooms, lecture halls, movies, oped pages, books, magazines, talk shows, just about every third PBS documentary by my count, blogs, diversity training sessions and, yes, even mandatory Black History Month events. 

I lean toward Goldberg’s view, but Holder’s belief that we need more frank conversations about race certainly is intellectually defensible. The really, really stupid part occurs, of course, when Holder says the lack of such discussions means that America is “a nation of cowards.”

The statement is stupid because it undercuts the outcome Holder advocates. Now that one of the highest-ranking black people in America has said that Americans are cowards on racial issues, would you expect that I as an American and a white person would be a) more likely, or b) less likely to feel comfortable discussing racial issues with black people? (I suppose one could argue “more” on the evidence of this blog post, given that the blog has black readers, and that I would not likely be posting on racial issues today in the absence of Holder’s speech. But the answer I’m looking for is “less.”)

The other reason the statement is stupid is it undercuts Holder’s own boss — you know, America’s first black president, who appointed the first black attorney general. The guy whose election vividly demonstrates how far America has come from the days of his early childhood, when Barack Obama would have been forbidden to use certain public drinking fountains. The guy who admirably seeks to position himself not as a black president, but as America’s president.

This week’s other example of intellectually defensible but really, really stupid statements comes from the New York Post, in the form of the cartoon below:

(If you’re reading this from an RSS feed, the cartoon depicts a cop who has just shot a chimpanzee as saying, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”)

This is intellectually defensible as a criticism of the stimulus bill, and as anyone who followed the debate knows, President Obama did not “write” the bill — Congressional Democrats did. But in an environment where race-neutral terms like “socialist” and “inexperienced” have been described as racial code, it’s really, really stupid to compare anybody to a lower primate.

Perhaps the worst thing about the Post cartoon is that it has temporarily interrupted Al Sharpton’s descent into the obscurity he so richly deserves. Chris Muir sums it up more eloquently than I can in his cartoon today:

(Holder photo from Fox News)

7 thoughts on “How NOT To Talk About Race

  1. The entire race issue is very interesting. Entire groups of people (Sharpton and J. Jackson are some leaders) make a nice living off this divide.
    If one seeks offense, one is likely to find it. That cartoon, while not particularly funny, was not at all racist. I can remember seeing many, many, many pictures of George Bush being portrayed as a monkey, yet not a word was said. Yet, if the same satirical theme is used with Obama, it becomes racist?
    Wouldn’t that, in itself, be racist?

  2. The only people that can talk about race and get away with it are blacks. It’s a double standard.

    I went to public schools with blacks as well as played high school and college football with them. On the high school team, there were 55 players, including 5 white guys.

    I also used to play a lot of basketball, full court, 4-5 times a week. I have been where no white man has before, just to seek out the competition and get a good run.

    One time, while waiting to get in to a game, I asked a black guy who kept calling the other black guys on the court niggas, why it was okay for him to use that word, while if I said it, the brothers would all be coming after me.

    His response?

    Black people spell it “nigga”, while white people spell it “nigger”.

    That was his entire explanation.

    And I have many, many such stories to tell similar to this one.

    I have been called every name on the court and on the field, but I never reciprocated. I simply ignored it and determined to bust their ass at the next opportunity.

    My philosophy is a rising tide raises all ships. When one person succeeds, regardless of race, we all succeed. I wish we could all do like Dr. Martin Luther King said in his famous speech and look at people regardless of the color of their skin.

    But as long as we live in a fallen world, that is going to be tough to do.

  3. It is possible to be oversensitive about this whole race thing and perhaps America has got into that phase now. The fact that it is still being talked about (race, that is) means it is still a problem over there.

    There is a point to be made against the NY Post should have known that this is the sort of society you have made in the USA and been sensitive to it.

    I certainly do not think they did it on purpose.

    By the way, how is the missus? Still clicking away? Have a wonderful weekend.

  4. Da Old Man, you’re exactly right, pursuing racial grievances has become an industry. Now that we have a black president, I hope it’s an industry in decline.

    Paul, MLK’s quote is: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I think that would be a nation where race is discussed less, not more.

    Denford, I agree, I certainly don’t think the Post intended to compare Obama to a chimp. The Web Goddess is doing quite well, thank you.

  5. The artist clearly intended to poke at a poorly written bill….one written by a monkey. The race problem, to the extent there is one, comes from those who look at that cartoon and see race. It’s like the instances where someone looks as a skyscraper and sees a phallus. It says more about the observer than it does about the person who constructed the object.

  6. I first heard about the cartoon on NPR. They made it clear that people were offended because it was thought to be about Obama, but at least in the initial story didn’t offer an alternate interpretation. When I first saw it, that’s what I thought too. If the first thing I’d heard had been that a cartoonist thought that the stimulus was so poorly constructed that it looked like it had been ‘put together by a monkey’ (note to self: must fix doors on kitchen cabinets) and made a cartoon based on the story of a chimpanzee who went crazy and was shot- then I probably would have seen that instead.

    It isn’t merely our cultural expectations- it’s also what we’re specifically told to look for that colors our perceptions.

    People who heard Sharpton (or NPR) first will probably be more responsive to that interpretation. It’s like holding up a Rorschach test and saying, “am I the only one who sees a bat?”

    On race generally, it always irked me in college when someone would give a speech about how everyone had a responsibility to think about race and talk about race more than we do. It is the old, “if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem” thinking that ignores the possibility that paying no heed to race is one solution.

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