It’s been a rough month for President Obama. He’s found it increasingly difficult to find qualified candidates to fill his cabinet who pay their taxes. His Stimulus Program passed and the stock market responded with a precipitous decline. But the hardest blow to the veneer of our 30-day old “post-racial” presidency was Attorney General Eric Holder claiming America was a “nation of cowards” when it came to discussions of race.
Holder’s general point is Americans of all colors, ethnicities, and creeds should be more free and open in their discussions of race. Most Americans would agree with that statement. But I think Holder is implying something more specific. There are two interrelated claims at the core of Holder’s argument. First, most Americans have been unwilling to address the history of racial discrimination in the United States. Second, most white Americans are unwilling (or unable) to address their bias against non-whites.
As to the first claim–Americans are not addressing the history and legacy of slavery and racial discrimination–I suggest Mr. Holder step into a high school or college history class. I receive a virtually limitless stream of textbook catalogs and I have yet to come across a survey of American history that does not address slavery. Most surveys of twentieth century American history mention the civil rights movement. Times have changed from when history classes focused exclusively on “dead white males.”
Heather McDonald (City Journal) adds:
Leave aside for a moment Holder’s purely decorative call for a “frank” conversation about race. The Clinton-era Conversation also purported to be frank, and we know what that meant: a one-sided litany of white injustices. Please raise your hand if you haven’t heard the following bromides about “the racial matters that continue to divide us” more times than you can count: Police stop and arrest blacks at disproportionate rates because of racism; blacks are disproportionately in prison because of racism; blacks are failing in school because of racist inequities in school funding; the black poverty rate is the highest in the country because of racism; blacks were given mortgages that they couldn’t afford because of racism. I will stop there.
Not only do colleges, law schools, almost all of the nation’s elite public and private high schools, and the mainstream media, among others, have “conversations about . . . racial matters”; they never stop talking about them. Any student who graduates from a moderately selective college without hearing that its black students are victims of institutional racism—notwithstanding the fact that the vast majority of black students there will have been deliberately admitted with radically lower SAT scores than their white and Asian comrades—has been in a coma throughout his time there.
Charles Blow articulates the second claim–whitey is racist–in a recent NYT op-ed:
[M]ost whites harbor a hidden racial bias that many are unaware of and don’t consciously agree with…In tests taken from 2000 to 2006…three-quarters of whites have an implicit pro-white/anti-black bias. (Blacks showed racial biases, too, but unlike whites, they split about evenly between pro-black and pro-white. And, Blacks were the most likely of all races to exhibit no bias at all.)
I’m not sure how wide or deep Mr. Blow has researched these issues but the 2007 Pew Research Center polls paint a much different picture. Pew found African-Americans to be the most prejudiced racial group in the United States, exhibiting higher rates of negative opinions towards fellow African-Americans than whites. Pew found the percentage of white Americans who hold negative views of African-Americans is about eight percent.
Linda Chavez summarized the findings of the Pew studies last year in her presciently titled article, “Let Us by All Means Have an Honest Conversation about Race” (Commentary, June, 2008). Of course Ms. Chavez was condemned as a racist for writing:
[T]he New York Times notwithstanding, the black-white racial divide is no longer the great fault line in American politics. To the contrary, the virtual disappearance of white racial hostility in America is the salient background reality that, skills and talent aside, explains the extraordinary success of Barack Obama’s own candidacy for the highest office in the land…
A single statistic tells the tale. As against the 10 percent or fewer of American whites who hold negative views of blacks, the same mid-1990’s survey of intergroup attitudes cited above registered over three-quarters of blacks holding negative views of whites. To be sure, not all studies report such negative findings; nor do pollsters try, at least directly, to measure black attitudes toward whites as frequently as they do the reverse. But the handful of surveys that have indirectly probed black attitudes reveals a depressing and, as we shall see, indicative pattern.
At approximately the same time last year, Charles Johnson (The American Scholar, Summer 2008): The End of the Black American Narrative noted:
[D]espite being an antique, the old black American narrative of pervasive victimization persists, denying the overwhelming evidence of change since the time of my parents and grandparents, refusing to die as doggedly as the Ptolemaic vision before Copernicus or the notion of phlogiston in the 19th century, or the deductive reasoning of the medieval schoolmen. It has become ahistorical. For a time it served us well and powerfully, yes, reminding each generation of black Americans of the historic obligations and duties and dangers they inherited and faced, but the problem with any story or idea or interpretation is that it can soon fail to fit the facts and becomes an ideology, even kitsch.
This point is expressed eloquently by Susan Griffin in her 1982 essay “The Way of all Ideology,” where she says, “When a theory is transformed into an ideology, it begins to destroy the self and self-knowledge….No one can tell it anything new. It is annoyed by any detail which does not fit its worldview….Begun as a way to restore one’s sense of reality, now it attempts to discipline real people, to remake natural beings after its own image.”
I think AG Holder’s use of language was inflammatory and inaccurate. If there is any cowardice taking place, it is due in large measure to the pressures of living in a politically correct era where heated discussions of race can result in dismissal from work, suspension from school, and, at the extreme, prosecution for committing “hate crimes” in court. At the same time I want to thank Holder for opening the door to a frank and public discussion of race in the United States. For liberals that means no more political correctness, no more hypocrisy, and no more resorting to general accusations of rampant white racism. For conservatives that means recognizing the structural inequalities in education, health care, housing and legal representation that continue to exist in America.
The always eloquent John McWhorter states things much more lucidly than me in his recent post, “Defining ‘Nation of Cowards’ Down“:
[I]f Holder were really interested in a “conversation” on race, he would understand that America is engaged in one year-round. The claim that America “doesn’t want to talk about race” is hardly uncommon, and has a dramatic tang. However, take the past few years: Don Imus, Michael Richards, Jena, and of course, the coverage of Barack Obama’s campaign, which included white reporters diligently smoking out whites who insisted they wouldn’t vote for a black President.
A Martian observer–or a modern Tocqueville–would readily see that America was rather obsessed with race. Certainly we are an America ardently “conversing” about it year-round. What Holder wants is not a conversation but a conversion.
This idea of a “conversation” (conversion) on race forever just out of reach is interesting in an intellectual sense. However, all evidence is that the only conversation that’s going to happen already is. It is a sometimes messy exchange, conservative and liberal going head-to-head, gradually settling on a centrist position.
Transcript of AG Holder’s remarks here.
Linda Chavez responds to Holder.
Ta-Nehesi Coates (The Atlantic): Eric Holder’s Boring-Ass Speech on Race
Peter Wehner (Contentions): Holder’s shame