It's good music, this idea once again in the air in the wake of L'affaire Sherrod — that America needs to have a "conversation" about race, or that America is culpable in that it won't happen. I've always been especially stimulated by the corollary that often comes with the call for "conversation": that America needs to understand how race and racism have been part of the warp and woof of our becoming the nation that we are.
The problem is that all there is in this evergreen "conversation" notion is music and stimulation.
First of all, to yearn for a time when all, or even most, Americans could recite a disquisition on how the nation's economy was once built on cotton, how New Deal policies often underserved blacks, and roughly 12 other factoids is a fantasy.
Never in the history of the world has there been a citizenry of any nation so supremely informed, so quintessentially sensitive, so furiously intellectual. It is unclear to me that there could be, logically, an exception to this even when the topic is the descendants of African slaves.
Do people calling for this really imagine that this epidemic of sage awareness and moral sophistication could ever take place? I suggest that calls for it are more performance art than anything else.
After all, let's say it happened.
Let's say that all of non-black America looked all of black America in the eye and acknowledged that racism can be institutional rather than overt, that America was founded on racism and that life chances for black people are lower than for white people on the average and that this is not black people's fault.
I know — that's not what the numbers would be. But I'm going for something specific here: Suppose they were 95 percent. Suppose the people calling for a "conversation" got what they really wanted. Suppose America did "get it."
Here's the point: it wouldn't be enough.
After the "conversation" took place, then even if it were precisely the nationwide conversion that people seek, the people who called for the conversation would not be satisfied. It's why I insist that a "conversation" is not what people of this mind really want.
Think of someone you know who likes saying that America needs to have a "conversation" on race, or who is known to rue that America will never have this "conversation." Or think of a writer you like who is given to this mode of thought.
Can you imagine them actually saying, "OK, we had the conversation. Let's move on"? Ever?
It is utterly unimaginable. The reason it's unimaginable is that the mental schema is about more than a conversational exchange. The "conversation" in question would be a prelude for action. What action? A major revolution in how, especially, black people are treated by our governmental institutions.
Surely people would vary on the details, but in a general sense, what people are thinking about is reparations.
Maybe not in so many words, but what they mean is that white America needs to adopt black America as a special case, as it did in the 1960s. To wit: "Can we have a conversation?" is today's rendition of what was being phrased in about 1999 as "Let's talk about reparations for slavery."
All of these things have occasioned conversation. But they still leave a certain contingent aggrieved that we don't have one — because they aren't seeking a conversation. They are seeking a conversion — more specifically, they want white America to understand that the civil rights revolution in the '60s wasn't enough. Which, by definition, means that they seek a second one, or something equally seismic.
And the problem is that the New Revolution is not going to happen. Just as reparations, when called as such, died on the vine somewhere around the time that 9/11 threw a bucket of cold water in America's face, the second civil rights revolution is dead in the water.
We're a vastly more ethnically mixed country than we were before the '70s (before which there had been an imposed four-decade bottleneck on immigration). Our government is not smarting under the embarrassment of incidents, like Birmingham being pointed to by the Soviets as evidence of the rot in our country. What ails black America in 2010 is not as directly amenable to a solution as legalized segregation and disenfranchisement were.
As such, the "conversation" notion is more of a song than anything else, and it's time to let it go. To truly engage with what black America needs in 2010 is to take a page from Shirley Sherrod and look at what helps poor people in particular.
All of this is "conversation" enough — but with concrete goals and results.
Or — for those who prefer to keep asking for a "conversation" — they must look America in the eye and say what they really want. Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder said we were a "nation of cowards" for not talking about race. Well, it's also cowardly to cloak a call for reparations and a return of the Great Society in an oblique fig-leaf term like "conversation."
I cannot imagine that what such people are really waiting for can happen. Just, maybe, I'm wrong. But that could at least allow us to address something brass-tacks, honest and concrete.
To phrase it as "Can we have a conversation?" is to settle for misty euphemism over serious, lucid, adult discussion. Since when was The Struggle about being shy?
John McWhorter is a Columbia University lecturer and contributing editor for The New Republic and City Journal.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.