It is not precisely true that Americans don’t talk about race.
Race informs our discussions of everything from crime to education to who got picked for “American Idol.” We talk race in the lunchroom with people who look like us, yell race at the television when irked by people who don’t. We read race in our newspapers and magazines, then write race in letters and e-mails to editors. January rolls around and we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. February sweeps in and we observe Black History Month.
We talk about race, all right. We are just really bad at it.
As you may have guessed, the foregoing is occasioned by a speech Eric Holder, the nation’s first African-American attorney general, gave last week. In it, he characterized the United States as “a nation of cowards” when it comes to discussing our tortured racial history. There is, however, more to it than that.
A large component of my work for nearly 20 years has involved talking about, and persuading my fellow Americans to talk about, race. After hundreds of columns, dozens of speeches and thousands of face-to-face and e-mail exchanges with Americans of all stripes, I consider myself something of an expert on the subject. And I’m here to tell you that race is like a four-car pileup on the freeway: it simultaneously attracts us and repels.
Because of this, we can’t not talk about it. Yet at the same time, we can’t talk about it either. At least not in any sort of honest, intelligent or sustained way, because doing so requires cross-cultural trust we do not have and takes us places we prefer not to go.
So we talk about race, but we don’t. More often, we yell about race. Or talk around race. Or deliver self-righteous monologues on race. All of it tainted by a gaping ignorance of, and stubborn refusal to grapple with, the hateful, hurtful history that makes talking about race necessary in the first place.
We play games instead. Many African-Americans lie in wait to cry “Gotcha!” when some hapless white person inadvertently says some questionable thing, as though innocent ignorance were indistinguishable from actual malice. As when a white analyst on TV’s Golf Channel said something dumb about Tiger Woods and the Rev. Al Sharpton demanded her head, telling a reporter, “What she said is racist. Whether she’s a racist ... is immaterial.”
We play games. Many white Americans go about with fingers in ears singing “la la la la” at the top of their lungs rather than hear inconvenient truths that challenge their fantasies of how we have overcome. You can bring them a thousand anecdotes, you can bury them in studies from universities, think tanks and the federal government itself, documenting continuing racial bias in housing, employment, education, criminal justice, and they will still tell you all that stuff ended yesterday.
This is what I have repeatedly seen. And small wonder, if you are black, you stop trying to have substantive discussions about race with white people: They refuse to listen. Small wonder, if you are white, you stop speaking freely about race with black people: Every little thing is racism with them.
And small wonder, in recent years, the discussion on race has come to be dominated by loud, intolerant voices using the reach they are afforded by the Internet and the intellectual cover they are provided by conservative extremism to promulgate a neo-racism more raw than anything the mainstream has seen in years. Small wonder the Southern Poverty Law Center reports the number of hate groups in this country has risen more than 40 percent since 2000.
We live in an era where the bad people among us are feeling emboldened by the silence and compassion fatigue of the good ones. But after all we’ve been through, after all we have done and suffered to bring about change, we cannot afford silence or fatigue, cannot afford to turn the conversation over to the voices of loud intolerance.
So thank Eric Holder for the reminder. If good people do not lead this discussion, the bad ones happily will.
— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.