Politics & Policy

‘Honest Conversations’ about Race

Protest sign at a Donald Trump rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, July 28, 2016. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
And the cynical ends to which they are habitually put

‘What this country really needs,” we are endlessly instructed, “is an honest conversation about race.”

Do we ever talk about anything else?

From yesterday’s New York Times: an op-ed dwells on the question of whether voter-ID laws and other anti-fraud measures are the spawn of Jim Crow; Charles M. Blow explains “Why Blacks Loathe Trump”; Nate Parker, a black director, has remade Birth of a Nation, and it is controversial; G-Eazy, a white rapper, de-emphasizes his race, and it is controversial; the lead politics story is Donald Trump’s weakening “pillar of support,” white men; the lead national story concerns allegations of a police cover-up in the shooting of a black man in Chicago; the lead science headline reports that genetic tests contain more errors for black subjects than for white subjects. The New York Daily News offered a report from its race columnist, Shaun King — I am told he is a white man who has spent his adult life pretending to be a black man — under the headline “A tale of two face-eating men in Florida — one white, one black.” The Los Angeles Times contains a column about racists in the Trump campaign and a news item about a wrongful-termination lawsuit involving allegations of racism in the LAPD. The San Francisco Chronicle is remarkably light on race news, possibly owing to the fact that San Francisco has exiled much of its non-white/non-Asian population (its black population has declined by more than a third since 1990), which is the subject of a story headlined “Feds reject housing plan meant to help minorities stay in SF.”

If only we’d talk about race a little bit.

Other news of the day included the fact that the United States is to build a memorial to lynching victims. It is to be built in Montgomery, Ala., and the site will also house a museum to be called “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration,” which is a monument to question-begging.

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One of history’s little ironies is that the great congressional enemy of anti-lynching laws was none other than Lyndon Baines Johnson, remembered today mainly as a civil-rights hero. To believe that Johnson was transformed in the course of a few short years (well into his maturity) from a man who spent a great deal of time gutting and hobbling Republican-backed civil-rights legislation to a champion of civil rights as the result of a moral awakening rather than as a consequence of crude political calculation (calculation was Johnson’s greatest skill) requires something more than extending the benefit of the doubt — something more like willful suspension of disbelief. To keep alive the memory of the actual record of the Democratic party and the progressive movement on the matter of race — it is a dreadful record — is not merely an opportunity to point at today’s Democrats and remind them of their party’s ugly history. It is necessary to understanding all that obsessive racial stuff in the New York Times and everywhere else.

The great error of conservatives and Republicans (the two are not synonymous) on the matter of race is in their burning desire to come to a stopping point, to close the book and declare the question finally settled. After the Civil War, they argued that the sins of the nation had been washed away in the blood of Gettysburg. The same feeling followed the passage of the 14th Amendment: “We’re done now, right?” The same thing accompanied the civil-rights advances of the Eisenhower years. Eisenhower signed a civil-rights law, and, though he had mixed feelings about the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown, he sent the 101st Airborne into Little Rock to enforce the law. The man who organized D-Day landed troops in the segregated South to enforce desegregation: Surely, many thought, we have now done our part.

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Other measures followed, including the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, opposed by many of the editors of this magazine and famously by their electoral champion that year, Senator Barry Goldwater. Goldwater, a founding member of the Arizona NAACP who had funded out of his own pocket the lawsuit that desegregated the public schools in Phoenix, who had been a friend and patron to civil-rights leaders and who had in both the private sector (his family’s business) and the public sector (the Arizona air wing) worked tirelessly and effectively for desegregation, was a conservative who thought — perhaps wrongly, certainly with an eye to political self-interest, but with no indication at all of malice — that we had done enough, that the sweeping powers with which the 1964 law invested the federal government did violence to the constitutional order and would effectively lift all limits on the federal government’s reach, that we’d done what needed doing back in 1957.

He wasn’t wrong, exactly, about what the law meant to the reach of the federal government. If you are one of those people on the Left who are dismayed by the Obama administration’s insistence that the commerce clause gives the federal government the right to interfere in, say, state-level marijuana-liberalization projects that do not have anything obviously to do with interstate commerce, consider the origin of Washington’s over-broad interpretation of its powers vis-à-vis the states, and maybe even say a little prayer for states’ rights, more properly understood as states’ powers.

An honest conversation about race should include consideration of the cynical ends to which “honest conversations about race” habitually are put.

But it is hard to argue that what’s happened since the passage of the 1964 law represents anything other than a staggering success, well beyond the imaginings of anybody involved in the debate at the time. The condition of life in black America has been radically transformed for the better, and our most pressing concerns on the question of race involve a minority of a minority: poor people in poor communities, with poor parents and grandparents, and poor children, our main project here being to work to ensure that fewer of them have desperately poor grandchildren. Our intellectuals’ fascination with the racial aspects of white rappers and black directors reinterpreting The Birth of a Nation does not do very much to secure those goals, and I am even less confident that Ta-Nehisi Coates’s foray into black-power comic-book fantasy does that, either. But of course a writer is entitled to his own enthusiasms, and Coates has done admirable work keeping the reading world mindful of the fact that for all of the good that’s been done, we aren’t there yet. Coates is wrong about a great deal, politically, but he is honest, politically, for instance reminding his fellow progressives that what was happening in the FDR-to-LBJ years was not a story of backward southern “conservatives” standing in the way of progress but a marriage between progressivism and racism, an ugly alloy first forged by Woodrow Wilson, the godfather of American progressivism.

#related#That is a conversation that we do not have very often, which is strange. The African Americans who by most measurable metrics have it the worst are those who live under effective single-party rule conducted by spotlessly progressive Democrats in large American cities. Around the time he was signing that famous civil-rights law, President Johnson unveiled the Model Cities program, under which vast federal resources would be marshaled in the service of urban-renewal efforts dreamed up by the top progressive intellectuals. The focus of that program was . . . Detroit. Race is an enduring issue, but it also is a racket: For every Ta-Nehisi Coates, there is an Al Sharpton. All those conversations about race we’re allegedly not having have kept David Duke, Louis Farrakhan, and countless diversity-and-sensitivity consultants away from honest work for a generation.

An honest conversation about race should include consideration of the cynical ends to which “honest conversations about race” habitually are put, and should explore the inexplicable lacunae in those conversations and the question of who benefits from them.

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