Are we cowards when it comes to talking race?

Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation’s first black attorney general, said this week that the U.S. is “a nation of cowards” on matters of race. He said most Americans avoid candid discussions of racial issues.

“If we’re going to ever make progress, we’re going to have to have the guts, we have to have the determination, to be honest with each other. It also means we have to be able to accept criticism where that is justified,” Holder said after the speech.

He provided no framework for how to have that conversation.

Neither did National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, which took the unusual step — for NPR — of putting two people with different views together to hash it out and prove to thousands of people on the way home in their cars, that if we’re not cowards, we’re at least clumsy as all getout.

Joe Klein, Time magazine’s political columnist, and Michael Eric Dyson, an author and professor at Georgetown University, got very little accomplished. Klein was upset that Holder didn’t acknowledge “the incredible progress that has been made over the last 40 or 50 years,” and Dyson sounding as though African Americans think white America wants to hear a “thank you.”

  • Al

    I’ve heard Dyson and others speak before and I am always left with the same question: What do you want me, a white person, to DO?

    How do we arrive at the point where I am not being blamed for the racism and bigotry of my ancestors. How can I, as an individual, redeem myself for the sins of my ancestors? I have black friends. I’ve been though training programs to identify my biases and learn to counteract racisim and bigotry. I’ve done much to serve African American communities. I’ve done my best to stand against racism. I have invited the hungry black children of the drug dealer in our neighborhood to eat at my table. I am NOT looking for a thank you for any of it. I just want to stop being blamed!

    Here’s the the question again: What can I, a white person, DO to stop being blamed?

  • Bob

    As a rule, we are not a frank, reflective or historically informed culture. Those are all prerequisites for being brave in any discussions about race.

  • The reason we can’t have a “frank, honest” discussion about race is that, to paraphrase the old drill sergeant’s aphorism, everything you do will get you branded a racist, and everything you don’t do will get you branded a racist.

    If you are thinking about cooking dinner, and your spouse smacks you if you burn the pot roast and, on the other hand, smacks you if you spend too much on ordering pizza, you’re going to make macaroni and cheese and hope nothing happens to you.

    I’m sick to death of people saying “we need a frank discussion about race” on the one hand, and then framing the argument so that it’s impossible not to be demonized on the other.

    I mean, on the one hand, what’s the point?

    And on the other – who’s the coward?

  • Joanna

    I’d say a couple of these comments reflect why it’s so hard to have these conversations: they are pre-emptive and hostile. Simply pointing out the existence of racism is called “demonizing and blaming” by the people who are not its primary victims. Just as racism is impersonal, so are the benefits of racism; white people benefit from racism even when they personally do not perpetrate it intentionally. Black people are discriminated against even when they personally have done nothing.

    What is a white person to do? start by shutting up and listening to people express their pain without arguing. Listen. It’s not all about YOU. Keep on doing what you can to speak out against racism, act against it, and help other people understand it. That does not consist of griping about how your fee-fees are hurt when the topic is raised.

  • Joanna,

    With all due respect, that’s exactly the sort of condescending, patronizing, classist response that makes most Americans (of *all* races, I firmly believe) tune the whole discussion out.

    Not sure why you’d assume that anyone doesn’t “listen”, but I’ll tell you I do. I just don’t feel compelled to swallow all I hear without question (especially from the sort of white liberals who bellow the loudest of the subject).

    Back in 1991 Rush Limbaugh wrote that racism really was a dead issue as a prime societal moving force; that while there were plenty of racists in America, that it was a matter of individual ignorance and hatred, and not a reason for blacks to not take their rightful share of our society.

    Oh, wait – it wasn’t Limbaugh. It was noted honky cracker William Raspberry.

    Of course, he was roundly excoriated by all the usual race pimps, eager not to have their gravy train upset. Apparently he wasn’t one of the “voices” to which we’re supposed to “listen” along with the rest.

    More on this on my blog tomorrow.

    Fee-fees? I’m going to presume you were just trying to joke, there.

  • Al

    I HAVE listened, and listened, and listened, and yes without arguing and being defensive. I have acted. Now what? I’ve been in a number of frank, honest discussions about race. What I want to know now is how we move on.

    And many blacks have benefitted and continue to benefit from the wealth of this nation that was stolen from Native Americans. They didn’t steal the country, but they benefitted from it. Where is the great listening tour? And black MEN have benefitted from the sexism that continues to grip this nation. Where is the great listening tour?

    Yes it was and is terrible that people like my grandparents always think ‘nigger’ when they see a black man, but it’s also terrible when people like Mr. Dyson seem to only see ‘whitey’ trying to screw them when they see me. Thank heavens most white people don’t think that way any more. I can only hope most black see beyond the rhetoric of Mr. Dyson.

  • “Yes it was and is terrible that people like my grandparents always think ‘nigger’ when they see a black man, but it’s also terrible when people like Mr. Dyson seem to only see ‘whitey’ trying to screw them when they see me. ”

    And above all, it’s frustrating, non-productive and obtuse when people look at “whitey” and see “racist”. Why, it’s almost as if it’s a stereotype or something.

    Look – everyone in the world is most comfortable around, and trusting of, people like *them*. White people more at home about whites; MPR listeners get edgy when not immersed in college-educated upper-middle-class white society; Koreans and Latvians and Eritreans tend to stick together, and further to distrust H’mong, Poles and Somalis just as much as they do Whitey. I call it “we-ism”, and we won’t “cure” racism until we “cure” “we-ism”.

    And we can’t have a “frank and honest” discussion about any of it until people stop framing the “discussion” on racism as a rhetorical cudgel.

  • Jefferson

    Here’s how I deal with racial issues:

    I get out of bed. I go to work. I come home and spend time with my family and try to figure out how to pay the bills.

    For many working Americans it is a luxury to have discussions and arguments about how racial issues should be tackled in our society. I heard the piece on NPR yesterday and it was an interesting exercise and I liked the conversation. It didn’t accomplish anything, but it was interesting to listen to.

    When I was younger and travelled in artistic circles I had time for these conversations. Now I have a family, two jobs, and I’m out in rural MN and frankly, I’m busy. I hope you all can sort it out. I just tell my kids to treat everyone the same. Gotta go.

  • Leigh

    Although having conversations about race with my white friends can be troublesome for all involved, I try to interject a black perspective that they may not have considered before, often. It is usually met with rolling of the eyes, dead silence, and or staunch defense of their lack of racism. All three immediately tend to shut down opportunity for open, heart felt dialogue between ‘friends’.