Yackety-yak about race

Yackety-yak about race – Column

Adolph Reed, Jr.

So what the heck is a “national conversation on race,” anyway? Like so much in what passes for public discussion in America these days, the notion soothes and reassures, conveying a sense of gravitas, while at the same time having no clear, practical meaning whatsoever.

I remember hearing calls for this conversation a few years ago, first from former University of Pennsylvania President Sheldon Hackney, then from Lani Guinier and performance artist Anna Deveare Smith. At the time, it seemed to be just a well-intentioned soundbite, a way to express in newschat a concern with racial injustice and anger. As a mass-media metaphor, it seemed harmless enough: a way to evoke a national commitment to honesty and democracy. I couldn’t imagine how this call could possibly translate into anything concrete, though. Who would participate in this conversation? Where would it be held? What would the ground rules be? And to what end?

I certainly didn’t suspect that the notion would go anywhere; I presumed that it would have the shelf life of slogans from political ads. You know, like “Where’s the beef?” or “It takes a village . . .” Well, I didn’t take into account the significance of a New South, psychobabbling baby boomer whose political opportunism comes with cybertechie, New Age flourishes. As it turns out, this national-conversation idea is just Bill Clinton’s cup of herbal tea.

Now that Clinton has glommed onto the national conversation, it won’t just dissipate through the airwaves over time. He has decided to keep this strange idea alive by formalizing it into a Presidential race-relations advisory board. It just goes to show that Bipartisan Bill has the soul of a talk-show host. But the “conversation” also highlights the profound shift over the last generation in American liberals’ ways of talking about racial inequality.

It’s impossible, for instance, to imagine Lyndon Johnson using the Presidential bully pulpit to call for a national conversation on race in 1964 or 1965. For all his limitations–the Vietnam War chief among them–Johnson understood that the point in pursuing racial justice is not to stimulate conversation. When people like Everett Dirksen protested that the struggle for black civil rights should rely on efforts to change whites’ individual attitudes rather than on changing laws. Johnson made it clear that he was less interested in changing people’s hearts than their public behavior.

Johnson understood that assertive government action can define acceptable practices and behavior, and ultimately change the world in which attitudes are formed.

The transformation of the South’s racial politics has been incomplete, as the electoral success of governors Kirk Fordice in Mississippi and Fob James in Alabama demonstrate. The region nonetheless has undergone changes that would have seemed unimaginable thirty years ago. Blacks and whites can share public space more or less routinely, interact publicly in ways marked by the civility that presumes social equality, share work stations, and maintain the casual conviviality that normally pertains among co-workers. More than at any point in this century, white elites take for granted the need to take some notion of black interests into account when making public policy.

What made these changes possible was civil-rights law, not attitude adjustment. Presenting white Southerners with a fait accompli was the only way to counter the cultural force of white-supremacist ideology. Prohibiting discrimination by law not only enforced blacks’ civil and citizenship rights, though that certainly was its intent and most important consequence. It was also the only way to create an environment in which casual contact would occur between blacks and whites as presumptive equals. This interaction has begun to erode racist stereotypes and bigotry by establishing the basis for a shared mundane humanity in workplaces, schools, and other public venues.

In the current anti-statist, market-worshipping climate, it is fashionable to deny that public authority can influence behavior and attitudes. Economists and others who worship market theology contend that slavery and racial discrimination would have been eliminated by the natural workings of the market if abolitionists and civil-rights activists had just been a little more patient. Some even blame attempts to preempt those market forces–through the Civil War and Reconstruction Amendments and 1964 Civil Rights Law and 1965 Voting Rights Law–for creating racism. Public intervention inevitably fails, so this twisted reasoning goes, because its artificiality breeds resentment. Civil-rights laws, and affirmative action in particular. just stir up white hostility, since they are coercive, and an affront to properly market-based notions of justice and equity.

Besides (and here’s where this sophistry most clearly approximates religion), the white South would eventually have eliminated slavery on its own because the system was irrational economically. Segregation and other forms of discrimination were already on the decline after World War II for the same reason, say the market moralists. Their argument boils down to this: Had there been no legal abolition of slavery, there would have been no white-supremacist restoration in the South, and had there been no civil-rights legislation, there would be no white racism. If exuberant reformers hadn’t gone mucking around with the larger rationality of the system of individual choices and transactions that drive market forces, everything would have turned out fine. Never mind that the Confederacy fought tooth and nail to preserve slavery and that white southerners fought nearly as hard to maintain Jim Crow.

A climate in which this kind of thought is credible makes twaddle like the need for a national conversation about race seem to make sense. It’s the norm these days to make public issues a matter of personal feelings, and to separate beliefs from their social context. It is this climate that makes it possible for a supposedly progressive magazine like Mother Jones not only to attack affirmative action as divisive, but to call for its demise in order to “reestablish racial healing as a national priority.”

This brings us back to Bipartisan Bill s attraction to the conversation. It’s an ideal vehicle for him to express his concerns about race, because it’s not connected to any real substance. It’s just part of the fundamentally empty rhetoric of multiculturalism: diversity, mutual awareness, respect for difference, hearing different voices. and the like.

None of these notions is objectionable on its face, but that’s partly because none of them means anything in particular. Several Southern state governments have embraced a brand of multiculturalism that treats foes and advocates of white supremacy as equivalent “voices” equally deserving of respect. So they grant state employees the option to choose either Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday or Robert E. Lee’s as a mid-January holiday.

We should accept the equal humanity of those who support Operation Rescue. the Promise Keepers, the Christian Coalition, or the militia movement, but that cannot mean that we grant the legitimacy of their reactionary political programs. And whether or not we are willing to talk with them about our differences is less important than that we defeat their political objectives and repudiate the larger social vision from which those objectives derive.

No doubt Hackney and Guinier and others calling for this national conversation are well-intentioned. But that doesn’t mean the idea is any less vapid–or potentially destructive. As we’ve seen, opponents of affirmative action also base their argument on their desire to stamp out “racial division.” A generation ago, segregationists charged civil-rights activists with creating racial divisiveness. A century earlier, opponents of Reconstruction made the same claim against people who supported black citizenship.

The saccharine language of multiculturalism and respect, diversity, awareness, and healing is wonderfully evanescent; it amounts to a kind of racial-equality lite. Ironically, the “conversation” also reinforces a fundamentally racist assumption: the idea that individuals automatically can articulate the mindset of a group is a vestige of Victorian notions of racial temperament.

The problem isn’t racial division or a need for healing. It is racial inequality and injustice. And the remedy isn’t an elaborately choreographed pageantry of essentializing yackety-yak about group experience, cultural difference, pain, and the inevitable platitudes about understanding. Rather, we need a clear commitment by the federal government to preserve, buttress, and extend civil rights, and to use the office of the Presidency to indicate that commitment forcefully and unambiguously. As the lesson of the past three decades in the South makes clear, this is the only effective way to change racist attitudes and beliefs.

Bill Clinton has absolutely no interest in that kind of talk, however, and it’s easy to understand why. If he did, he’d have to explain why he and his Administration have repeatedly pandered to the resurgent racist tendencies he purports to bemoan.

He’d have to explain why he made a central prop in his 1992 campaign an element of the lexicon of coded racism–his pledge to “end welfare as we know it” and his constant harping on an invidious distinction between those who supposedly “play by the rules” and those who supposedly don’t. He’d have to explain his own half-hearted stand on affirmative action (“mend it, don’t end it”) and why he refused to provide any support for the mobilization against California’s hideous Proposition 209.

He’d have to explain why he proposed and pushed through a draconian crime bill that not only trades on the coded racist rhetoric of the anti crime hysteria but also disproportionately targets inner-city minorities. (Take, for example, the outrageous disparity in sentencing for possession of crack and powder cocaine. The only difference between the two forms of the drug is the racial breakdown of users.)

He’d have to explain why he signed and supported the odious welfare-reform bill.

He’d have to explain why his Administration resorts to the racialized language of inner-city pathology to justify its attack on the principle of providing public housing for poor people.

It doesn’t make sense to feel betrayed by Clinton, however. He’s only doing what comes naturally. If progressives don’t begin thinking in a more rigorous way about this kind of charade, we’ll never stop talking in circles.

Adolph Reed Jr. is a professor of African-American studies and political science at the Univerity of Illinois at Chicago. His latest book is “W.E.B. DuBois and American Political Thought” (Oxford University Press).

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