Sunday, February 22, 2009

Race: About That 'Dialogue'

From Kevin Ferris at the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Attorney General Eric Holder may get the dialogue on race that he called for Wednesday in a speech marking African American History Month. But the terms he offered are likely to promote division more than unity.
Holder's speech demonstrated the contradictions that doom these dialogues before they start. The most quoted - and dumbest - line from his speech is, "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been, and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards."
Later in the speech, Holder said, "I fear . . . that we are taking steps that, rather than advancing us as a nation, are actually dividing us even further."
Where exactly does the "nation of cowards" remark fall - under advancing us or dividing us even further? I'd vote for the latter.
It's a bold choice of words for someone whose biggest claim to fame before taking his current job was failing to stand up to his boss, Bill Clinton, in the scandalous pardon of financier and fugitive Marc Rich.
And how oddly timed. The country just elected its first black president. No other nation in the world has ever elected to its highest office a member of a racial minority that was subject to legal segregation just 50 years earlier.
Yet this is a nation of cowards? Because average Americans aren't "comfortable enough with one another . . . to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us"? Our historic actions apparently don't speak louder than our lack of words.
If Americans don't talk enough about race, it's because they've learned from long experience that such efforts are often futile. If no action is ever enough, how could words help? At the end of almost any dialogue, Americans know the refrain will remain: We still have a long way to go.
The implication is that we still have widespread, deep-seated racial hatred in this country. Not so. Actually, our remaining differences on race have little to do with legal barriers to equality or opportunity. The debate today is about the means of achieving racial parity, not the end itself.
Holder addressed one of those means, affirmative action, in his speech. He said there can be "very legitimate debate" on the issue - "nuanced, principled, and spirited." But too often, he said, the conversation is "simplistic and left to those on the extremes."
I'm guessing that the "extremes" include people who oppose race-based policies such as affirmative action. That was the view of the Clinton administration, which made much of its national dialogue on race, but whose distinguished commission included no one who had fundamental disagreements with the use of racial preferences.
In other words, let's have an "honest and open" dialogue on race, but don't bring up certain views, or you will be labeled an extremist - i.e., racist. This is about the convener's photo-op, not your concerns.
Holder takes this model further. Now, if you fail to join the chat under the stated preconditions, you're a coward, too.
Look at last week's "dialogue" on whether a New York Post cartoon, comparing a chimp shot by police to the author of the stimulus bill, was racist. Never mind that the bill was written by the white speaker of the House, not the black president. Never mind that monkeys have been used to depict presidents ranging from Lincoln to W.
Given the historic stereotyping of blacks, some cartoons will be interpreted as racist regardless of the artist's intent. There will be protests, calls for boycotts, cable-news shoutfests. Maybe the cartoonist will be punished, as shock jock Don Imus was after his remarks about black female basketball players. And maybe, just maybe, there is some educational value to all this - on the off chance that someone, somewhere, isn't aware that stereotypes have been used to promote racism and bigotry.
Unfortunately, the bigger lesson is this: These incidents - Imus, the cartoon, Holder's speech - are our national conversation on race. And they do not "foster a period of dialogue among the races," as Holder proposes. They foster anger, suspicion, and division. They consist of accusations, countercharges, and hard feelings, and they are often difficult to understand. Get involved, and chances are you'll get burned.
Avoiding such dialogues isn't cowardice; it's common sense.

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