Eric Holder famously suggested that, on the question of race at least, America represents a “nation of cowards.” After watching the crucifixion of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban over the past couple of days, it’s nigh on impossible not to think that he’s right.
In an interview arranged by the business magazine Inc., Cuban went out on a limb. Answering a question about Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, he started by reiterating his view that not only is cultural censorship a force for ill, but that it is impossible to regulate away unpleasantness (“there’s no law against stupid”), and then moved on to weightier things. America has come a long way, Cuban suggested, but it is “not necessarily easy for everybody to adopt, or adapt, or evolve”:
We’re all prejudiced in one way or the other. If I see a black kid in a hoodie and it’s late at night, I’m walking to the other side of the street. If on that side of the street, there’s a guy that has tattoos all over his face — white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere — I’m walking back to the other side of the street. And the list goes on of stereotypes that we all live up to and are fearful of. And so, in my businesses, I try not to be hypocritical. I know that I’m not perfect. I know that I live in a glass house, and it’s not appropriate for me to throw stones.
Reacting rather violently to this in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, Bill Plaschke put succinctly what became a widely expressed sentiment: Cuban, Plaschke sniped, had chosen to discuss “his own prejudices in startling terms.” “His honesty,” he concluded, “is appalling.”
One wonders at what point “startling honesty” became a bad thing — especially in a realm such as this. On the surface, we claim that we want to talk about these issues candidly. When it comes to it, though, we tend to demur. Honesty, perhaps, has a better reputation than it deserves. It is a virtue, yes. But it also carries with it certain guarantees of discomfort. By its very nature, honesty will not always yield pretty results, nor is it likely invariably to satisfy the claims of the zeitgeist; human nature being fallible, anybody charged with revealing his soul will almost certainly impart sincerely acquired misinformation, a good dose of old-fashioned irrationality, and a reliance upon stereotypes; and, conversations being organic and unpredictable things, any discussion that ranges into uncharted or precarious territory is certain to bring up topics that societies tend to prefer to keep quiet. Do we want that or do we not?
Apparently, we do not. Yesterday, the ever-hysterical ThinkProgress summed up the underlying problem perfectly. Cuban, Travis Waldron griped in a notably confused post, has shown America “how not to start a conversation about racism.” On its face, this is a peculiar claim, is it not? Cuban did, quite literally and deliberately, start a conversation about racism. He talked about specifics, allowing that if he sees a “black kid in a hoodie” on his side of the street, he is prone to “move to the other side”; he personalized his contribution, self-critically contending that he was “prejudiced” and “bigoted in a lot of different ways”; and he broadened his point to society as a whole, positing that “none of us have pure thoughts; we all live in glass houses.” All in all, a pretty good way of kicking off the game.
But, it seems, an unacceptable one, too. This, apparently, was not the conversation that the Left wished to have — nor, perhaps, the conversation that the majority of Americans wish to have. Here, the cynics are right when they claim that the sort of people who call for a “dialogue” in this area really want to hear a lecture, and that those who are ostensibly seeking merely to arrange a forum in which they can ask people what they think wish only that the people with the wrong views will out themselves with sufficient probity that they might be pilloried in public.
Perhaps the most insidious part of the affair was the ease with which Cuban’s critics elected to pick and choose which of his words they would take at face value and which they would presume to be untrue. Twitter was aflutter with the buzz words, but mostly silent as to the context. For his part, Waldron treated us to what can only be described as a schizophrenic reaction, taking literally the parts of Cuban’s offering that did not meet with his approval while steadfastly refusing to consider as genuine the parts that did. Waldron claimed that he’ll afford to Cuban “the benefit of the doubt that he was trying to make an honest and crucial point.” But he also accused him of contriving to “toss in a white guy with tattoos simply to give the appearance of equivalence between the two hypothetical people of whom he speaks.” One wonders what sort of national investigation we are to have if those who voluntarily enter themselves into as evidence are reflexively regarded to be unreliable narrators when they contribute anything of nuance?
Waldron’s reaction also highlighted another unfortunate tendency: namely, the setting of certain sentiments to one side because they are uncomfortable. Among the “problems” with what Cuban said, apparently, was
the easiness with which Cuban turned to the “black kid in a hoodie” stereotype. That draws immediate comparisons to Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager who was killed by a neighborhood watch vigilante who found Martin, a black teen in a hoodie walking around at night, suspicious. . . . Cuban’s words might be honest, but so clearly evoking a cause that was significant to a population that makes up a majority of the NBA’s players and a sizable piece of its fan base isn’t exactly the way to begin a constructive discussion about racism.
The contrarian might ask, “Why not?” For a start, if Cuban feels this way then he feels this way and, in the service of a disquisition intended to reveal his “prejudices,” he should not hold back from saying it. Unless one expects to play moderator, contributor, and audience, it seems abundantly obvious that any reasonable conversation is going to range inside and outside of one’s comfort zone. Indeed, even if, arguendo, we concede that the example was a little raw, the useful response to such an acknowledgement is, “Perhaps you could tell me a little bit more about that?” It is not to exert so much pressure on the speaker for broaching a taboo that he feels the need to apologize.
Defending Cuban yesterday, a number of commentators pointed to a famous press conference in 1993, during which Jesse Jackson lamented that, “there is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” Why does it matter that Jackson said this? Not, I’d propose, because a black person’s having said it justifies any nefarious instincts that non-blacks might have. But because Jackson’s having admitted to it indicates just how widespread such fears are. Again, a useful response in this instance would not be to complain that Cuban’s professed fears might potentially hurt feelings and should therefore be kept quiet, but to inquire as to whether his inclination is warranted. One might discover that Jackson and Cuban are both overly afraid and should learn to be more judicious; or that it is destructive to minorities for collective crime statistics to so readily be put on the shoulders of innocent individuals; or that, while there is something rational to their fears, it nevertheless shows just how potent racial inequalities remain in everyday life. As it happens, if it says anything much at all, Cuban’s admission plays into the Left’s contention that there is widespread anxiety about black men in hoodies, and that this fear sometimes has fatal consequences. Whatever one’s view, shouldn’t his judgment be welcomed as a useful piece of information?
Fleshing out his accusation of cowardice, Holder lamented that “certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks at best embarrassment and at worst the questioning of one’s character.” Once again, he was right. Any meaningful “conversation” dealing with a topic as weighty as race will have to be predicated on the ironclad understanding that contributors will not be crucified for their participation. We are not yet ready to offer that assurance. Mark Cuban broached one of Holder’s “certain subjects” and he took an honest shot at exploring it. For his troubles, he has been embarrassed and his character has been questioned. Far from encouraging others to contribute, such a reaction is all but guaranteed to ensure that others will demur from following the example. Who among us will bare our souls if only to have stakes driven through them by our self-appointed judges? Not Mark Cuban. Not me. Not anybody else in the nation of cowards.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.