Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On Teachable Moments and Non-Conversations

The latest in the series of consistently interesting dialogues between Glenn Loury and John McWhorter has been posted:

Among the themes explored in this conversation is the manner in which a steady stream of "race-related events" are turned in a media frenzy into "teachable moments" and calls for a "national conversation on race." As examples they cite the Gates arrest a year ago, the recent vilification and vindication of Shirley Sherrod, Harry Reid's characterization of Obama's dialect, Hilary Clinton's comments on the King legacy, and Jim Clyburn's response to these comments -- all part of a long list of racially charged incidents that briefly occupy the national spotlight from time to time.
Glenn, for one, is terribly weary of the "melodramatic dance that we do about race and racial etiquette in this society" in the wake of such events:
I’m tired of the national non-conversation on race... we’re not talking about real things… we’re mired in a kind of superficial morality of expressive convention… what can and cannot properly be said by right thinking people… fingerpointing… grandstanding… moralizing… real genuine moral engagement with serious problems in our society… gets short shrift while everyone is posturing… checking the scorecard to see what the exactly correct way of expressing something is… I’m just so weary of this.
John agrees that the "posturing" and "witch-hunting" is little more than "a theatrical production that we are taught to pretend is an engagement with something substantial."
In contrast to the loud (if brief) responses to these so-called teachable moments, there is almost total silence in the public sphere about the really serious issues with which we need to be grappling. Here's Glenn:
One million African American men under lock and key on any given day… structured, reproduced inequality of a raced nature… violent crime perpetrated by black people often on other black people at enormous scale… children with no prospect to realize their God-given talents or their human potential because the institutions designed to facilitate their development have failed them totally… these are the things that demonstrate that society is not in a post-racial moment, and they turn out to be a lot less about theatrics and a lot more about politics, policy, candor… if we wanted to have a conversation on race we’d have to start with some of the really hard stuff, and I’m afraid it wouldn’t be as easy as hunting out politically incorrect racists and then calling them what they are.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has also recently addressed the issue of national non-conversations, arguing that we learn nothing because we aspire not to know:
I keep hearing people bantering about this notion of a national conversation on race, and I have finally figured out why it rankles so... Expecting an American conversation on race in this country, is like expecting financial advice from someone who prefers to not check their bank balance. It's not that the answers, themselves, are pre-ordained, its that we are more interested in  answers than questions, in verdicts than evidence...

Put bluntly, this is a country too ignorant of itself to grapple with race in any serious way. The very nomenclature -- "conversation on race" -- betrays the unseriousness of the thing by communicating the sense that race can be boxed from the broader American narrative, that you can somehow talk about Thomas Jefferson without Sally Hemmings; that you can discuss Andrew Jackson without discussing his betrayal of the black artillerymen who fought at the Battle of New Orleans; that you can discuss the suffrage without Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells or Frederick Douglass; that you can discuss temperance without understanding the support of the Klan; that you can discuss the path to statehood in Florida without discussing Fort Gadsen; that you can talk Texas without understanding cotton, and so on.

It's not so much that we don't know -- it's that we aspire to not know. The ignorance of the African-American thread in the broader American quilt -- the essential nature of that thread -- is willful... Race isn't a "distraction" from Obama's agenda -- it's the compromised, unsure ground upon which this country walks everyday...

Talk is overrated. There can be no talk with people who've conditioned themselves out of listening. This is the country we've made. This is the country we deserve.
Coates returns to this theme in a follow-up post prompted by Jim Webb's column on diversity:
I think the fact that we don't really have the implements to carry out this much ballyhoed conversation were really brought home by Jim Webb's piece "The Myth Of White Privilege"... The title, itself, is a device meant to drive conservatives to cheering, liberals to howling, and the whole of them all to page-clicking and reading, In short, it proceeds not from any desire to conversate, as we say, but to provoke strong emotion, and hopefully, page-views... I hate unthinking equivalence, but its quite clear to me that liberals and conservatives both have prominent camps that enjoy yelling.

But its still worth teasing out the intentions and the argument. The questions, themselves, are serious and worthy ones: What is "white privilege" to those who are white and poor, seemingly in perpetuity? Does Affirmative Action exist to promote diversity or historical redress? Is it both? If so, why? Who should be on the receiving end of such redress? Do immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa count? How do Native Americans fit in? What does it mean to have Affirmative Action for white women, many of whom will in turn marry white men?

How do we, specifically, define Affirmative Action? Is it any effort at diversity by anyone, anywhere? Do the questions I listed change depending on the venue? When I was hired, surely the Atlantic relished the idea of adding an African-American to their masthead. Was that Affirmative Action? If so, was it different than what happens, say, at Harvard? Was it bad?

How much does Affirmative Action actually affect white workers? How much discrimination are they actually suffering? In what spheres is this discrimination most prevalent? Are poor whites actually losing out to "people of color?" Do we have any stats on how many people have been affected by Affirmative Action? How broad is its impact?

I'm not really interested in answering any of these questions here and now, so much as I'm interested in asserting their validity, and asserting that they will always be ill-served by an 800 word op-ed with an inflammatory title. My sense is that there are answers to all of these queries. But I don't think we much care to have them. Jim Webb's piece, most regrettably, followed in the tradition of Henry Louis Gates' column on reparations, in that it is a sign post, a line of demarcation. An exclamation point, as opposed to a question mark.

The "conversation around race" is, itself, a kind of tribalism, wherein you look for ways to justify -- instead of interrogate -- your most elemental feelings.
Loury and McWhorter also discuss the Webb column at some length in their dialogue, and also consider the questions posed there to be serious and worthy. In addition, they feel that the column is indicative of a major shift in the manner of public expression regarding race. Here's Glenn again:
I think that the whole regime of genuflection at the altar of correct racial expression is on the verge of collapse… I sense in the air around me here, in the kinds of things that people are saying… Obama’s ascendancy … has contributed to that… as Obama’s success has made it easier for people to breach the etiquette of racial expression, the conversation is going to get a little rougher… people are going to let go of stuff that they’ve been holding on to for a while.
John puts it as follows: "there’s a sea change coming... we can predict, when people start letting it out… a lot of it is going to be pent up… some of it is going to come out infelicitously phrased." 
The conversation that Coates has given up on is happening already, and he is at the heart of it (as are Loury and McWhorter). But it is being drowned out by the shrillest voices, and I fear that the yelling will be ramped up for a while longer before it eventually subsides.


Sara Mayeux's response to the Webb column is also worth reading; she argues that the inflammatory title may well have been chosen by an "overzealous copyeditor." My own thoughts on the Gates arrest may be found here, and some reflections on an extraordinary essay by Ralph Ellison (that demonstrates brilliantly the essential nature of the "African American thread in the broader American quilt") here.

Glenn and I co-taught a course on Group Inequality at the Universidad de Los Andes in July, and were interviewed by Dinero while in Bogotá. (The interview was conducted in English, and translated for publication.)


Update (8/18). Maxine Udall has a characteristically thoughtful follow-up.


  1. Have you thought about doing a bloggingheads with Loury? I'd watch it.

  2. Thanks Chris... we may well do this at some point.