Saturday, February 28, 2009

Nation of Cowards?

Not long ago, our new Attorney General Eric Holder (the nation's first black top prosecutor) gave a speech where he addressed the history and present of race relations in the United States. Holder asserted that, in spite of our progress, we remain a "nation of cowards" when it comes to race. As you can imagine, this sparked a brief but intense controversy.

As I was gearing up to write this post, I stumbled upon a clip from Hardball With Chris Matthews that focused on this very topic.

The amazing thing about this clip is that serves as fabulous proof of AG Holder's argument. If you watch this video closely, you will observe the very cowardice that AG Holder is seeking to confront. Consider the following.

After letting Dr. Michael Eric Dyson explain why he agreed with Holder, guest host Mike Barnicle asks ultra-conservative talking head Pat Buchanan what happens when whits talk candidly about race. This was a blatantly obvious set up to allow Buchanan to complain about how unfairly whites are treated when they talk honestly about race. By perusing this line of reason, Buchanan was actually displaying cowardice by avoiding a real conversation on race.

But even before that point, Barnicle argued that, while America may be uncomfortable or reluctant when talking about race, we're not cowards. Huh? Did he just say "we're cowards, but we're not cowards"? Way to prove the point you're arguing against.

If you continue to watch the video, you'll witness Barnicle and Buchanan distort Holder's words and avoid any discussion of white racism. In fact, it appears that Buchanan's only understanding of racism involves bad things black people do. He also seems stuck in nineteenth century thinking in that he doesn't yet seem to grasp the concept that many of the problems in the African American community (crime, drug abuse, poverty, a lack of education, fatherlesness) are, at least in part, traceable to white racism.

Here's the bottom line. Many Americans, especially white Americans, are afraid to talk about race in a real and substantial way. People are afraid to talk about the existence of white privilege. They're afraid to talk about black disenfranchisement in the 2000 election. They're afraid to talk about racial inequality in public schools or in the criminal justice system. If you were to suggest to "average" Americans that Ronald Regan was racist, they'd get uncomfortable and defensive. They wouldn't counter your argument, they'd challenge your right to open the discussion in the first place.

This is exactly what happened in the wake of AG Holder's comments. It wasn't "Let's discuss the accuracy of Holder's statements," or "Let's look at ways in which what Holder said was true or untrue." It was more like, "How dare he say that." Many will offer that the "successes" of the Civil Rights Movement (some of which have been since reversed) or the election of President Obama, or the achievements of a small minorities of blacks show that Holder's accusation is unreasonable. Never mind little black children shot dead in our streets, or a lack of adequate health care or access to nutrition or inconsistencies in criminal proceedings or the unequal distribution of resources for public schools. Instead of a mature and comprehensive discussion on race, the media fallout was little more than a childish attack on Holder.

Of course, such a reaction should come as no surprise. The same thing happened last year in the reaction to Rev. Jeremiah Wright. At no point did the mainstream media pause and actually evaluate his statements. Rev. Wright's words about were challenging and caused many discomfort. Instead of addressing this issues he raised, many resorted to calling him "racist" and "anti-American." How is it racist to say that Hillary Clinton doesn't know what it's like to be a black man? Is there something Secretary Clinton needs to tell us? Why did the "revealing" of those few seconds of Rev. Wright's three decade preaching career become another opportunity to lampoon another crazy black race baiter? Why not let it be an opportunity to discuss the intersection of race and gender, or the consequences of U.S. foreign policy, or the lasting effects of our nations antagonistic actions toward African Americans - all issues raised by Wright.

Why do discussions about race always devolve into debates over whether or not blacks have a right to discuss race? Isn't that what happened in the clip above? Pat Buchanan is challanging Dr. Dyson's right to even participate in a discussion on white racism. He's revealing his belief that blacks don't have a wright to blame blacks for anything. He's avoiding the conversation because he's a coward.

This is why AG Holder was correct in his statements. We, as a nation, are afraid to confront our nation's racial past and the challenging present reality it has created. It's OK, good, in fact, that we feel uncomfortable when certain issue of race are raised. That discomfort let's us know that those are the very areas that require the most attention. However, when we shy away from this discomfort, and become defensive or only talk about race in cosmetic ways, we're little more than a nation of cowards.

**Note: I elected to speak of the nation as a whole for this post, and not simply white Americans. I did this for a few reasons. First, minorities can also be cowardly when discussing race. This is also a problem that must be dealt with on a national level. While I do feel that white Americans bear a unique portion of the blame for creating this atmosphere, we are a nation of cowards, and we must deal with this issue as a nation, and not as separate groups.

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