Friday, January 30, 2015

The National Conversation On Race

Noah Rothman, one of the writers for conservative mega-blog HotAir, has a lengthy piece up on Commentary about the National Conversation on Race titled
The ‘Conversation About Race’ That Isn’t a Conversation
His stipulation is that the people calling for the conversation more or less don't want a 'conversation' but, instead, a confession by America (in general) that they (white America) are hopelessly racist. He does a fairly completest job of tracking major events and moments and, to a degree (and for a HotAir associate editor, any degree is a surprising degree) comes off as somewhat sympathetic to Barack Obama who he indicates gave a pretty good (moderately even-handed?) speech on race and was dis-invited from talking much about Trayvon Martin as he'd "failed" to change anything.

While Rothman is probably right that there is some tactical jockeying going on in the current racial dialog (including a desire by a lot of people on the left to see America "own up to its hopeless racism") there are are some other important reasons why the conversation isn't quite as easy to have as one might think. Before we wholesale accuse people of wanting wanting to force a confession of racism, we should acknowledge these innate difficulties aside from bad intent (on either side).

These are:
  1. 'Racist,' today, and 'racism' in particular can mean a lot of different things. This is almost guaranteed to create misunderstandings (some would say 'engineered' to).
  2. The 'charge' of racism is both offensive and potentially intensely damaging. This makes 'having a conversation' risky, even for well-meaning participants.
  3. There can't just be one "conversation." The Internet conversation will be necessarily different than the political one. Fox News watchers mostly can't get the same conversation MSNBC viewers do. We're too fragmented.
Racism Today
The first issue that Rothman's analysis (and, really, any attempt at a conversation on race will run up against) is that "What racism is" both "has changed" and "has different definitions" depending on who and how you ask. This isn't all just strategic re-definition done to "win points" or shift goal-posts around provocative view points (although in the wilds of Internet argumentation, probably a decent amount of it is). The fact is that what qualifies someone as being 'racist' (or, perhaps less accusatory, makes certain behaviors racist) can look legitimately very different to different audiences. For example:
  • Sociologically speaking 'racism' is an -ism like capitalism (unlike the dictionary definition which is generally more traditional). In this case the it's about institutions that exercise racial imbalance. Often one party in a conversation is using the former and one the latter.
  • Racism can be used to mean subconscious pre-dispositions that many people (including, uh, black people) seem to share. It can include "negative opinions" on black people that may appear to be founded on culture rather than race (or something else entirely?). While we can take issues with the methodologies, even if we assume they are correct, racism as a subconscious reaction is almost certainly different from intentional malice. 
  • The concept of micro-aggressions has led to many charges of racism (or various check-your-privilege formulations) that may be mystifying to their targets.  
These variations--usually unspoken, sometimes poorly described--can make even well meant communication seem insincere (the traditional meaning of racism--that you're kind of a Klansman--is why so many people think "I have a lot of black friends" is a legitimate defense against the charge. Guys in the Klan, after all, did not generally have a lot--or any--black friends ...). If you do add in strategic re-definition (the bald statement that blacks can't be racist--using the sociological definition--without explanation) seems like crazy, super-accusatory moon language which usually provokes a response the party can then use to soap-box from. This, of course, is even worse.

The 'Charge' of Racism Is Nuclear-Grade
A big problem with a 'conversation about racism' is that it's almost implicitly a zero-sum game. Even in the most present-company-excluded form of the dialog where only large-scale policy impacts are discussed (and no actual humans, much less the white humans at the table are explicitly implicated) there will be a party that 'wins' and a party that loses.

Namely, if the white party agrees to the terms of the discussion (for example, that large-scale policies have had an unfair and disproportionate racial impact--the crux of Ta-Nishi's Coate's Case for Reparations, which Noah Rothman summarily--and unfairly--dismisses) at the end of the day, the groups will likely have reached agreement that there were (and, erm, still are) white people doing racist things.

Now, in a perfect world, this could be a common-ground with which to evaluate existing policy--maybe make some changes everyone agreed were fair and positive (equally realistic: every party involved will also get a free unicorn). In our imperfect world, though, the white people may have reason to believe they're being set up. Coping to being racist--even with several degrees of separation--is kinda like copping to being a Nazi. We're all aware of high profile celebrities who've had serious career damage from being successfully charged as racist. Even if the term starts with something like taking ownership of a microaggression, by the time you've owned up to it, the fear that it could be spun into a substantial HR complaint isn't fantasy land.

Here's what you're supposed to do when charged with racist behavior (according to the online stewards of such): shut-up, listen, self-reflect, apologize, do some self-study. What you're not supposed to do is argue or explain anything. If that's the standard--at least the 'online standard' (and there are various such pieces for other infractions)--it's little wonder people on the receiving end (white people) might not be super eager to sign up for the 'discussion.'

Finally, as totalizing as the 'racist' designation is is (and it is: if you are tagged as having racist behavior and don't follow the above apologizing strategy, the immediate implication is that your character is rotten) it really only goes one way: white people are racist. Black people aren't.

There are some good reasons for this if you use the sociological framework (that white people control most of the power-structure in the western world and therefore their racism matters while black people's doesn't as much)--but if you're talking about the moral implications of racism, there's no reason that should be the case. Still, charges of 'reverse-racism' only play to the (white) conservative crowd and if the participant in the conversation doesn't feel that's fair, today there's almost nothing that can be done about it.

The Medium Is Fragmented
The final problem with a 'conversation about race'--even in its most benevolent benefit-of-the-doubt, let's-all-come-together form, is that there's just no place to have it. Firstly, no person speaks for "black people" or "white people" yet there is all kinds of preponderance of behavior in different mediums that seems to point to trends (the depths of tumbr for the Social-Justice-Warriors of the left, Fox News comments for the racists-of-the-right, for example) that are either of key importance or totally meaningless tiny-population-sample troll exhibitions depending on who you ask and what side you're on.

The Internet, which is the greatest facilitator of voice mankind has invented, is a terrible place to try to talk about race.

Cable news could be, frankly, much better--and as you can easily see how bad that would be (it would be totally unsuitable due to viewer polarization)--you can take comfort from the fact that if some sustained conversational push did happen there, it would satisfy exactly no one.

In other words, if we were to charge ahead with the 'conversation' our choices of venue would consist of:

  • Completely ineffectual and meaningless to every side involved --or--
  • Totally making everything worse
Given those options, maybe the idea isn't so good after all.

The Real Killer: Presumed Lack of Good Faith
Of course those problems above are all innate, intractable parts of the psychic terrain around such a conversation. The real killer--which shuts down the idea before we even get to that--is that no one can actually presume good faith due to political polarization. Today--right now, when it's probably most important--we are more polarized and more instantly and easily sorted than we have ever been. 

Take Ebola, for example: is the government response to Ebola a key turning point of political ideology? Of course it isn't--not bright line anyway (you can argue various responses from an ideological basis but The Omnivore is unconvinced there's a clear a right-and-wrong as people claim). However, the views of the US's response were rapidly sorted into Red-v-Blue battle-lines and everyone was suddenly an expert on disease control and the impacts international travel / aid restrictions. If that can be polarized instantaneously then an electorate which pretty much lines up along black-vs-white voting lines doesn't have a chance of going anywhere.

The Omnivore said that Rothman's article unfortunately dismissed Ta-Nishi Coates' case for reparations and the reason he used the word 'unfortunately' is key. Rothman's dismissal was to cast Caotes as a hyper-partisan (maybe a bomb-thrower) for whom coming down on the side of reparations was a key and obvious signifier that he was not to be taken in good faith.

The problem with that is that Coates' argument for reparations was not reparations for slavery--as 'reparations' is commonly understood to mean--but for a significant preponderance of policy that did, he makes the case fairly substantially, persist to this day. Some of what he covered, The Omnivore already knew (The Omnivore's day job involves some of the players in the housing collapse, part of which was driven by mid-level hucksters selling really bad loans to black families--specifically black families--who were targeted because they were correctly assessed as easy marks for those instruments) but some of it he didn't. 

Assuming Coates doesn't have his facts wrong, it's an important and eye-opening argument--closer to suggesting the US compensate still-living Japanese families who were unfairly interred during WWII or, if we had a bit of a time machine, the black men who were injected with syphilis and left untreated--than paying money on a century+ year old crime by a society that no longer exists (slavery). 

Coates is, of course, impassioned about his treatment as a black man--and his language is not generally conciliatory--and that isn't going to draw people into a conversation explicitly with him--Noah is right about that--but his argument about policy impacts isn't a signfier of him as an ideological outlier--an extremist. Instead it should be exactly in the middle of the target Noah's well meaning faction (The Omnivore will presume to be non-racist whites) wants to have: a conversation about facts, historically checkable trends, and testable thesis's that don't directly implicate the individuals talking (unless you were a housing policy director or something?).

If both sides aren't ready to have that sort of conversation there's no hope for any other and it isn't just "one side" (the left-side that wants a confession and admission of guilt) that's causing it.

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