Tuesday, March 17, 2009
(Racial) Talk is Cheap
I’m a firm believer that none of us is above critique — I learned a long time ago that saying anything beyond “Good morning,” will generate disagreement. If you’re in the business of putting words on paper, or more aptly these days, putting pixels on screens, then criticism is the best evidence that people are reading you and engaging your ideas. In this case, however, I wish there had actually been substantial engagement with ideas as opposed to an assault on a straw man.
A couple weeks back I responded to a question about Eric Holder’s “cowards on race” commentary by saying that the problem is not a lack of dialogue but bad public policies and entrenched legacies of racial privilege. We can “dialogue” all day but it really amounts to nothing more than a focus group or worse, one of those awkward “reconciliation” sessions that change very little in terms of actual social problems. Or, as I was quoted:
“Our major concerns about race are not conversations, [t]hey are about policies, and they are about entrenched legacies of privilege and underprivilege. So in some ways, these conversations are a substitute for other kinds of more meaningful reform or interaction
In response, one John Wilson writing in the Orlando Sentinel took issue with this assessment. Focusing almost entirely upon the first half of my statement, Wilson lumped my comments in with Maureen Dowd’s mentally impaired belief that Obama’s election was supposed to “get us past” the need for racial dialogue. Clearly we are saying two completely different things: I’m saying that dialogue is a cop out, a way of avoiding the serious structural issues that continue to impact communities of color; Dowd is simply ready to sing hallelujah and march forward without ever having to think about race again.
Fact is one election… does not conclude society’s ever-changing dialogue on race. To think so misses the whole point of why we dialogue in the first place. The purpose is to understand various perspectives other than your own, heighten awareness to lessen insensitivity, and draw people closer based on mutual interests, ideals and ambitions.
This is a tragic oversimplification of the problem. It echoes the soft liberal belief that the problem is, essentially one of misunderstanding — that microracism of the “can-I-touch-your-hair?” variety is the actual disease, not a minor symptom of a bigger problem.
Let’s begin: slavery, segregation, lynching, disfranchisement, convict-leasing, redlining, union-exclusion, forced sterilization, police brutality, economic inequality and the prison industrial complex were not created by a “lack of awareness” or “insensitivity.” They were expressions of power, policies that were meant to allocate privilege in one direction and deprive it in another.
Were it that simple, the NAACP could have launched a series of national discussions as opposed to fighting for the policy changes that eventually outlawed lynching and ended segregation. Martin Luther King could have sponsored a few townhall meetings and the problems of Birmingham would have vanished.
Here is another offering:
Only society itself can move forward by embracing diversity and engaging in meaningful dialogue. I would ask Cobb: How do we address underprivilege, specifically those sufferers who are disproportionately affected when it comes to access to health-care, high school graduation rates, or incidences of arrest, conviction and longer sentencing, without talking about race? In the age of police-shooting victim Oscar Grant and racially charged New York Post cartoons, we either need more “postracial elections” or real conversations.
The problem here is that Wilson confuses “conversation” with progress, or believes it to be a key component of it — as if these problems initially arose from a lack of dialogue as opposed to being expressions of white racial self interest. The fact is that one cannot assume mutual interests or goodwill.
The prison industrial complex is currently transferring political power out of poor black and brown communities and toward poor white ones. When the census begins next year, well over one million black people will not be counted in the communities where they grew up or where their families live — they will be counted as part of the population in the overwhelmingly white counties where they are incarcerated, giving those areas disproportionate political representation, tax allotment and clout.
All the dialogue in the world about unequal sentencing and racial bias in the justice system doesn’t change the fact that those white communities have a vested interest in retaining a racially biased situation. There is some merit to “interracial understanding” in the same way that any civic dialogue is likely to produce some beneficial side effect. But that absolutely cannot be confused with addressing the underlying problems of race and socio-economics in this country.
Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe slavery really could’ve been ended by senstivity training instead of a Civil War. Perhaps the lower life-expectancy that I have as a black man in America is a product of my failure to dialogue with people who are different.
I’m open to talking about it.
I think Professor Cobb made some interesting points, and I commented on his blog:
Professor Cobb, I don’t believe that dialogue alone will significantly change the litany of issues you mentioned above. Furthermore, I agree with you that many of these issues revert back to self-interest and an establishment that is too often focused on the status quo, no matter how disproportionate its effects may be. But when I look at your argument and mine I see two sides of the same coin; I see action begetting dialogue. To have one without the other doesn’t create progress anymore than having neither will. King and others were able to transform boycotts and marches from mere acts of “civil disobedience” to a human rights issue that was at the center stage of local, state, national and international scenes. The accomplishment was predicated upon two things amongst others: (1)Such action would communicate to the masses the injustice that thrives in the south; and (2) Such action wouldn’t stop until the injustice no longer exists, and the masses would be increasingly likely to put outside pressure on those inflicting the torment. Without action you have no end to slavery, no independence of our people and, frankly, no struggle. But action alone did not do it. Actions gave certain Civil Rights leaders a bully pulpit to marshal ever-growing resources. But those actions were antecedents of the dialogue that took place later in homes, state governments, congress, and the White House. In his “Give Us the Ballot” speech, King demanded not only leadership from the federal government but also from northern white liberals, white southern moderates, and the black leadership. He said, “But we must not, however, remain satisfied with a court victory over our white brothers. We must respond to every decision with an understanding of those who have opposed us and with an appreciation of the difficult adjustments that the court orders pose for them. We must act in such a way as to make possible a coming together of white people and colored people on the basis of a real harmony of interest and understanding. We must seek an integration based on mutual respect.” And this is the kind of dialogue I am referring to; not to subvert or substitute action but to build upon action that has already been taken.
I look forward to continued dialogue with Professor Cobb.