Two thousand fourteen was an explosive and regrettable year for the politics of race in America. The fatal police shooting of black Missouri teenager Michael Brown on August 9 sparked ongoing riots in his hometown of Ferguson and beyond. After grand juries decided not to indict police officers for either the fatal shooting of Brown or the death of the 43-year-old New Yorker Eric Garner during an arrest, the country was hit with a wave of protest the likes of which we have not seen since the 1992 Los Angeles riots and whose geographic breadth was altogether new—from the blocking of bridges and highways in Los Angeles and New York City to “die-ins” in Seattle. But if the scope of turmoil was novel, the reaction from pundits, politicians, and academics was all too familiar. They called once again for a “national conversation” on race.
The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof penned a five-part epic—from August to November—on how “whites don’t get it.” To rectify this problem, he called for “a new commission [that] could jump-start an overdue national conversation.” Peniel Joseph, of Tufts University, called the violence in Ferguson a “teachable political moment” that should give rise to the creation of a “National Dialogue on Race Day” on American college campuses. “The ultimate goal is to create a sustained conversation that will carry policy implications on a range of issues locally and nationally,” he wrote for TheRoot.com. Finally, the president of the United States weighed in. “What we need is a sustained conversation,” Barack Obama urged in December, “to move forward in a constructive fashion.”
As the history of these proposed “conversations” shows, those seeking an honest give-and-take on national race relations would do well to look to other venues. For two decades, our tortured and contrived “conversations” have misled rather than enlightened. While there have been some well-intentioned advocates of having a “national conversation,” most of those who propose such an undertaking are not looking for candor or reconciliation. Rather, the prominent instigators of the national conversation are using it as a means of furthering a vision of United States as a hopelessly racist society. Meanwhile, those who resist the outcome these instigators desire are then charged with ignorance or cowardice or banished from the discussion altogether.
Appeals for these supposedly cathartic and therapeutic discourses date back to the final decade of the past century. Before 1994, the New York Times had never printed the now-ubiquitous phrase “national conversation on race.” We can place this phrase’s origin in remarks delivered two years earlier by the New Jersey Democrat Bill Bradley, who stood in the well of the Senate after the acquittal of four Los Angeles cops in the beating of Rodney King and demanded that the country have a frank discussion about its racial divisions. “If we as a nation continue to ignore the racial reality of our times, tip-toe around it, demagogue it, or flee from it, we’re going to pay an enormous price,” Bradley asserted in a speech that was as highly praised as it was devoid of substance.
The next year, newly elected president Bill Clinton appointed University of Pennsylvania law professor Lani Guinier to serve as assistant attorney general for civil rights. The revelation that she had become an advocate for proportional representation in Congress to thwart the “tyranny of the majority” made her confirmation impossible, and Clinton pulled her nomination. Thereafter, Guinier devoted her career to calling for a “national conversation” on race. In short order, Clinton began to appropriate Guinier’s language and actually crafted a national policy around her proposals. In 1997, Clinton called for a yearlong conversation on race. He appointed the distinguished black historian John Hope Franklin to lead it.1
Franklin’s national conversation proved to be an ideologically tendentious effort—and it would remain the standard model going forward. He refused to allow opponents of affirmative action to participate, famously declaring that they would have “nothing to contribute” to a 1997 forum on racial diversity. He accused minorities of betrayal if they criticized racial quotas: “Some blacks have a price,” Franklin claimed. “It’s just tragic when anyone sells themselves out.” An editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Clinton’s hometown paper, pronounced Franklin “rancorous, intolerant, accusatory, insulting, and divisive.”
While Franklin took the discussion through ugly terrain, others were veering toward the ludicrous. This, too, has been a fixture of the national conversation. First Lady Hillary Clinton injected herself into the deliberation when she insisted that her rejected overtures of friendship toward a white sports teammate in college actually lent her genuine credibility to speak on the issue.
When President Clinton tried to right this listing ship, he succeeded only by dealing a death blow to his initiative. At a town-hall meeting in Akron in the final weeks of 1997, Clinton was confronted by Abigail Thernstrom and Ward Connerly, both prominent critics of affirmative action. Clinton came back at them aggressively. “Do you favor the United States Army abolishing the affirmative-action program that produced Colin Powell?” he asked. “Yes, or no?” Thernstrom triumphed with her reply: “I do not think that it is racial preferences that made Colin Powell. The overwhelming majority of Americans want American citizens to be treated as individuals.”
Proponents of the national conversation didn’t want debate; they wanted a confession. And so they judged Clinton, and the country, as failures on this first official outing. “President Clinton’s lofty goal of a national conversation on race is failing to have any substantive effect because most Americans are unprepared to think about their own personal prejudices,” wrote Maurice Berger, author of White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness, in the Los Angeles Times. Further repudiation came from Clinton’s closest associate: In January 2000, Vice President Al Gore told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Clinton’s attempt to spur a dialogue on race was “a good beginning” before pledging to continue the effort in “not exactly in the same form.”
The “conversation” ebbed after the 2000 campaign and disappeared almost entirely after the September 11 attacks. National discussion centered instead on terrorism and war in the Muslim world. During this period, however, racial divisions grew more extreme on the nation’s intellectually sequestered college campuses.
President George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 offered him an opportunity to open his own national debate on ethnic tensions. He told the press he intended to invest his freshly acquired political capital in addressing the disparity of outcomes among different races in the public-education system. But exogenous events preempted the dialogue Bush had hoped to initiate.
In 2005 came Hurricane Katrina. A stream of images showing black Louisianans displaced and desperate in the wake of nature’s wrath set the country on edge. “Much as pictures of horses and German shepherds turned on protesters shamed the nation into confronting racial prejudice in the 1960s, the image of impoverished hurricane victims waiting in vain for government help is forcing a national conversation on race and urban poverty,” read a statement released by the Congressional Black Caucus.
Few prominent political and cultural figures acknowledged the hyperbole in this and other similar assertions. Fewer still reflected on the fact that New Orleans’s black mayor, Ray Nagin, was responsible—along with the state’s governor, Kathleen Blanco—for the local government’s inaction. Instead, Hurricane Katrina was used to highlight the ongoing plight of blacks in a bigoted United States. “I was taken aback when reporters and others watching this tragedy were saying: ‘This is not America,’” said California Representative Barbara Lee. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. This is the America I know. This is the America that each and every member of the Congressional Black Caucus knows all too well.’”
In response, Bush nodded in the direction of the “national conversation” once again. “This poverty has roots in generations of segregation and discrimination that closed many doors of opportunity,” he told attendees of the 2005 National Prayer Breakfast. “As we clear away the debris of a hurricane, let us also clear away the legacy of inequality.” But coming from a controversial Republican president who had essentially been blamed for an act of God, the exhortation found no purchase among liberals and leftists. Their understanding of the national conversation didn’t include the president who had been condemned for looking down at the hurricane from a helicopter. During a live telethon for Katrina victims, the rapper Kanye West went off script, looked dead at the camera, and simply offered, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” West’s statement more or less summed up the tenor of the national conversation on race during Bush’s second term.
Many in the chattering classes greeted Barack Obama’s candidacy warmly, partly because it would spark the anticipated conversation on race. Undoubtedly, the idealists among them hoped a leader had emerged who would remake the nation along post-racial lines. “I think a lot of Americans are uncomfortable having an authentic conversation about race and would like to ‘move on’ without necessarily facing the complex mix of unexpressed emotions and viewpoints inherent in the legacy of racism,” the civil-rights advocate J.G. Boccella asserted in a February 2008 column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Maybe, instead of an Obama presidency being a chance to skip over the tricky parts and stop talking about race, it could be an opportunity to take the conversation to the next level.”
Those further to the left hoped for a direct confrontation with America’s racist nature. The opaque Obama didn’t offer much reason to suspect he would move in one direction or another, but the discovery of controversial remarks from his long-time pastor Jeremiah Wright pointed to anything but a move toward a post-racial America. “God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme,” said Wright. “The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.” The Obama campaign was thrust into a crisis.
In March 2008, Obama responded with a lengthy televised speech. Over the course of 37 minutes, he became an even-handed, one-man embodiment of the national conversation on race. He decried the casual racial stereotyping in which the members of his white grandmother’s generation engaged. But he also called Wright’s comments offensive. Obama discussed the expectations placed on him, noting that he’s been criticized as both “too black” and “not black enough.” Though he denounced the “original sin of slavery,” the future president granted that there was hope for the nation yet.
Whatever the speech’s substantive merits, it was a political masterstroke and pulled Obama out of the perilous spiral into which Wright’s words had pulled him. “Brilliant,” the Philadelphia Inquirer exclaimed. Obama’s “frankness” on race could only be likened to that of Presidents Johnson and Lincoln, the New York Times averred. The speech also opened the window to restart the national conversation in the country at large. The national conversation on race is renewed, declared the Baltimore Sun’s Fraser Smith. Obama had delivered unto the nation a “long-awaited invitation to begin an honest, calm national dialogue about race,” the Chicago Tribune affirmed.
But, as before, “honest, calm national dialogue about race” is not what the conversation’s prominent endorsers sought. It wasn’t long before familiar patterns reemerged, and the conversation began to disappoint its champions. “We need more than another conversation; we need a ‘teach-in,’” Robin D.G. Kelley asserted in U.S. News and World Report. “We have seen a distinct difference in commentary on Rev. Wright from people who have spent time in black churches and those who have not,” said PBS host Gwen Ifill.
Many liberal pundits continued to be anything but calm even as they praised that quality in Obama. Obama’s backers accused his critics of latent racial antipathy. “Obama has been running as a post-racial candidate from the start,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “But the fact of the matter is that some voters—we can’t know yet how many—will not get past his race. And I very much believe that the McCain–Palin ticket is tapping into that.” The Times, too, warned its readers that the “extent of the racial divide” would become clear only on Election Day when returns quantified residual racism in the United States. One senses in these comments a vague and shameful hope that a persistent and insoluble racism does permeate America.
Indeed, once the United States had elected its first black president, some worried that the country would take this (rightly, in fact) as evidence of tremendous national progress on race and therefore dismiss the need for having the “national conversation.” They were surely delighted to discover in the early months of the Obama presidency that a new ceaseless dialogue on race in America had only just begun. “In things racial, we have always been, and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” said Attorney General Eric Holder, prodding open the discussion. When Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was detained for attempting to break into his own house in 2009, Obama rushed to insert himself into the fracas. In a prime-time news conference, he insisted that the white police officer had “acted stupidly” in suspecting the black academic of wrongdoing.
But as is their wont, the conversationists expressed dissatisfaction once again. As Democratic fortunes waned in the summer of 2010, Obama and the nation he led were deemed failures on race. “Expecting an American conversation on race in this country is like expecting financial advice from someone who prefers to not check his or her bank balance,” wrote the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. “This is a country too ignorant of itself to grapple with race in any serious way.” (Coates would go on to write a lengthy essay in favor of reparations for black Americans, making clear his idea of where a “serious” national conversation should lead.)
The shooting death of black Florida teen Trayvon Martin (by a Hispanic man) in February 2012 opened the national conversation yet again. But this time, those who issued their appeals hoped that the president who had let them down would take a back seat. “There needs to be a national conversation on race, but the president isn’t necessarily the one who has to lead it,” said Wisconsin Representative Gwen Moore. With characteristic crassness, New York Representative Charlie Rangel agreed that Obama’s involvement would not be constructive. “That’s like a man about to be lynched wants to give a talk about civil rights,” he said. Barack Obama had been dismissed for failing to advance the discussion of race in America.
By the time Obama’s supporters embarked on the task of securing his reelection, the national conversation on race had plainly become divorced from objective reality. With a black president having served a full term, agitators didn’t have much to work with on the surface, and so they had to dig. On the left, divining racism out of “code words” became a pseudo-intellectual sport. During an MSNBC panel discussion on the undue influence of exurban America on the political process, Michael Eric Dyson, of Georgetown University, teased out the supposedly racist language often used to discuss cities. “Who lives in urban America?” he asked pointedly. “This is ‘welfare queen’-lite. You don’t even have to say it. All you have to say is ‘urban.’” While covering the 2012 Republican National Convention, MSNBC host Chris Matthews noted, “They keep saying ‘Chicago,’ by the way, have you noticed?” Game Change author John Heilemann added further clarification: “There’s a lot of black people in Chicago.”
Confounding the expectations of prejudice-mongers once again, Obama was reelected president of the United States. But having a twice-elected black president did little to quell the push for a national conversation on race. The continued fascination with racial offense would be stoked in part by random news events and sensationalized oddball cases. The NFL’s Washington Redskins faced a new round of outrage over their name; television chef Paula Deen came under fire for having used racial epithets in conversation years earlier; and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling came in for broad public ridicule when a female companion released secretly audiotaped segments of his bizarre and offensive racial rants. All of this served to keep the “national conversation” going at what, in retrospect, looks like a low boil.
In 2014, the months-long public scolding of the police for their role in the deaths of Brown and Garner culminated in a sermon from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Owing to “centuries of racism,” the mayor said, he had had to teach his biracial son to fear the police force that de Blasio himself led. This was one more heaping brace of kindling added to a growing fire. While protesters called for the retributive murder of police, someone took up the charge. When officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were assassinated while sitting in their cruiser in Brooklyn, many drew a line from de Blasio’s official characterization of the police to the two victims.
For the national conversation’s skeptics, this horrific attack—one inspired, if not wholly motivated by, a popular culture infatuated with blaming law enforcement—proved decisive. The obsession with finding America guilty of broad and institutional racism was a dishonest and dangerous pursuit that had finally claimed lives. “It is impossible to overstate how inflammatory and ignorant de Blasio’s statements are,” wrote the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald in the New York Daily News. Days earlier she had compellingly observed in that there is “no institution in New York more dedicated to the proposition that black lives matter than the NYPD.”
But for the national conversation’s advocates, the shootings were an unwelcome obstacle to their self-reinforcing, decades-old lecture on race relations. “Conservatives are seizing on NYPD murders to silence any discussion about race in America,” declared Think Progress’s Igor Volsky hours after the shootings. Fearing that the targeted murder of police in New York might “derail” anti-police demonstrations, CBS News pondered whether “any gains made in the protest movement would be lost.” Speaking to a Boston-area NPR affiliate, the city’s ministerial leaders said they hoped the murders would not “derail a long overdue conversation around race.” All this before the officers’ bodies were buried.
Such blind insistence on a national conversation on race is not only distasteful; it has served to obscure the remarkable progress that has been made in America. While unacceptable racial inequalities persist, outcomes for African Americans have improved over the decades. By 2005, the income and wage gaps between blacks and whites had shrunk to their lowest points in American history. Progress toward parity was only arrested by the onset of the recession in 2007. The 2010 census revealed that African Americans, while less likely to receive a college degree than other demographics, are now more likely than any other demographic to have received some college education.
On the eve of the racially charged 2012 election cycle, 50 percent of Americans told Gallup pollsters that race relations had “greatly improved,” while another 39 percent said that racial comity had improved “somewhat.” In that same year, 76 percent said “new civil rights laws” were no longer necessary. Only 21 percent disagreed, down dramatically from the 38 percent who supported new civil rights laws as recently as 1993. In 2011, the majority of Americans believed that racial tensions between blacks and whites would “eventually [be] worked out.” These and other signs of progress are somehow not considered germane to those chasing the ever-elusive national conversation.
The latest racial firestorms are largely based on either arguable assertions or outright fabrications. The claim that Michael Brown had his hands up in a display of submission when he was shot is a demonstrable myth. Though both were unarmed, Brown and Eric Garner were also both resisting arrest when they were killed. Neither officer was indicted despite significant black representation on both grand juries. And those who claim that Garner died as a result of an officer’s application of a prohibited choke hold must contend with the fact that the 350-pound, hyper-tense asthmatic who died in the ambulance of a heart attack is as likely to have succumbed to extreme stress and physical exertion brought about by his ordeal.
But when the “conversation” veers into areas of disagreement or conflict, its advocates always declare it a failure. Nuanced discussion of the Brown or Garner cases is not permitted. As we have seen in Missouri and New York, this is a great hindrance to calm and understanding. The national conversation on race is, at best, disingenuous pageantry. At its worst, however, it throws up an ugly obstacle in America’s ongoing march toward freedom and justice for all its citizens.
1 When it was said that Clinton was flirting with issuing a formal apology for American slavery, paleoconservatives such as Patrick Buchanan offered distasteful criticisms of the president for undervaluing the European effort to spread Western civilization to Africa. This argument helped isolate Buchanan on the right and push him out of the party’s mainstream, which was a clarifying moment for American conservatism.