We Shouldn’t Stop Talking About Race

Don't leave the conversation to the demagogues and know-nothings like Limbaugh and Beck.

Rush Limbaugh; Glenn Beck (Getty Images)
Rush Limbaugh; Glenn Beck (Getty Images)

One day I asked my college students their views on the state of race in America. A young lady rolled her eyes and clucked her tongue. “Well,” she said, “maybe if everybody stopped talking about it so much, it would go away.”

“Actually,” I told her, “it won’t.”

Anybody who thinks they can simply wish away the frustrations of race is ignoring this country’s very identity. It is as steeped in our culture as the American flag. From the nation’s founding, race was an idea constructed to justify slavery. For some it has been a serviceable, if destructive, tool ever since.

Consider radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who regularly uses race to rally millions of loyal listeners with loaded statements, such as “melanin is thicker than water.” And what about Glenn Beck, who pumped up the volume, ranting that the term “African American” is “stupid”?

To insist, as John McWhorter did in a recent article at The Root, that it’s pointless to talk about race is to offer a really easy pass to some prominent and toxic people. These are major-league race hustlers who make a lucrative living fanning the flames of ethnic resentments to keep their ratings high. If sincere people — those genuinely committed to promoting thoughtful racial dialogue — withdraw from the conversation, we would effectively be handing the national stage over to the loons.

Ironically, it appears that the nation’s first black president has done little to help keep that from happening. It would seem that Barack Obama, as a product of mixed parentage, is uniquely positioned and qualified to initiate a meaningful national dialogue on race. Yet he seems intent on pretending that America is colorblind — except when a Jeremiah Wright moment forces his hand.

The result? Obama concedes the mic to folks whose views are uninformed at best and dangerous at worst. Wild-eyed revisionists hijack the discussion and distort the facts. Remember Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s bout with selective amnesia? Barbour credited pro-segregation white Citizens Councils with integrating public schools. And what about Michele Bachmann’s mangled account of history? She said that the Founding Fathers — many of them slaveholders — “worked tirelessly to end slavery.”

Such misstatements reveal the astounding ignorance of such self-styled “patriots,” who insist that they are qualified to lead a nation as ethnically diverse as ours. Those of us who know better can’t afford to allow distortions to go unchallenged simply because discussions about race are complex and prickly.

Obviously, we don’t need to talk about race for the sake of conversation. We have to talk about it because there is so much at stake. Remember, Bachmann signed a document asserting that black families were better off during slavery than they are today. Imagine what kind of legislation she — or others of her ilk — might promote if elected president.