So suppose we did it? Suppose we Talked About Race as so many say we do not? Desmond King and Rogers Smith have just said, to great acclaim, that neither major party has wanted to talk about race much since the 1970s. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley's Poverty Tour is nominally about the poor, but what truly animates them is race. Smiley's problem with Obama during his campaign was whether Obama cared about black people, and West has famously said that Obama is afraid of "free black men," not free poor ones. Critics hating on The Help accuse its creators of not wanting to "confront" race as directly as they should, with Valerie Boyd even referencing Attorney General Eric Holder's 2009 point about America's cowardice in not wanting to have a "conversation" about race.
The implication of this call for a conversation is that it would teach whites that racism still exists. Sure, blacks would learn something along the way — undefined, one senses, however, and less important than what whites would learn. If they would only listen.
But a national conversation about race would take us to exactly where we are now on the topic: a messy controversy, typical of complex, adult issues rooted in the vagaries of social history and its legacies. Jim Crow's over. The Archie Bunkers are mostly dead or close. There are no crystal-clear fundamentals to take white people into a corner to "school" them about.
Example: Let's have a conversation about education. A white teacher, hit by a black student, recently rued on Facebook that she was educating "future criminals." Syracuse University's Boyce Watkins thinks she was "educating black kids without sufficient cultural competence." Here's a "Can we talk?" kind of story — this lady's in the dark, right?
But exactly how would we teach her this "cultural competence"? Watkins describes how easily he connects with inner-city black kids, but via what lessons could we pass his ability — rooted in lifelong traits of identification, demeanor and language — on to a white lady? And remember, the second we try to list any specifically "black" traits to teach this woman, we will be roundly accused of stereotyping. The issues here, while urgent, will not yield to a "conversation" at — I mean, with — whites.
Let's have a conversation about crack. That is, laws that penalize possession and sale of crack cocaine, sold most by blacks, over powdered cocaine, sold most by whites. King and Smith think this is about "targeting blacks" and that America doesn't want to "talk" about it. But the Congressional Black Caucus was strongly behind these laws in the 1980s because selling crack on the streets destroys communities in a way that selling powder in your parents' basement in Scarsdale doesn't. Plus, inner-city residents right now typically wish the cops would do more to keep hoodlums from selling dope on their streets.
So apprising whites of their racism in a "conversation" would not do anyone any favors here. Stopping the war on drugs, which has had disproportionate effects on blacks — as much to the surprise of black lawmakers as white ones — would be more appropriate.
What about the fact that black kids are less likely to call studiousness "white" when most of the students aren't white? Check the data here (pdf). What about making all-black schools better?
King and Smith want us to "talk about" making civil service tests "fair and inclusive," referring by implication to potential black firefighters' problems with qualifying exams. But what kinds of questions would we deem unfair for black test takers? What content of black character requires changing the questions on an exam on which working-class whites regularly do OK? What about a conversation about making sure that black firefighter candidates know to study for the test as hard as many others do?
Or let's have a conversation about how we are treated in stores. In Ralph Banks' new book, Is Marriage for White People? a black interviewee says that she is uncomfortable when her white partner doesn't understand the racism behind experiences such as store clerks asking, "May I help you?" The idea is that these clerks wish you weren't in the store.
Now, in my experience, clerks often say "May I help you?" on orders to be solicitous, or even because they want to get you to buy more to up their commission. In New York, quite often I get "May I help you?" from black Caribbean and African clerks. I suspect that people like Banks' interviewee are interpreting the clerks' question inaccurately — at least usually. Yes, I know racism when I see it: I just wrote about a truly racist club owner in this space. I'm talking only about "May I help you?" Is this really, as we are told, a matter of being "trailed" in stores?
And the problem with a "conversation" about it would be that most clerks likely would deny the racism of which they are being accused. The question: How many black people who have felt that the interviewee would be prepared to believe them and concede that they had been mistaken? That's not the result that most seekers of a "conversation" about race are seeking, and thus the conversation would leave us where we are.
And let's not forget that when whites create The Help, about racism in the Old South, the "conversation" is all about how they didn't make the more progressive-minded whites in the story racist enough. And on top of this, quite a few whites feel this way about the movie — and yet how many will read in this that a conclusively useful "conversation" has been had on this movie or anything else?
It's not that "nobody wants to talk about race." It's that the old ways of talking about it don't work.
Let's say, for instance, that Obama made certain folks happy and started "talking about race." According to our happy warriors' script, he would call for Ebonics lessons and street-cred training for white teachers. He would suggest in a speech that store clerks not say "May I help you?" to black patrons (only for them to then be accused of racism of a different kind). He would urge the civil service to use tests that are easier for black people, and call for the police to ignore inner-city residents seeking the police to rout out gun-battling drug dealers.
Sorry, but I, for one, am glad Obama won't be taking this tack, and the reason he won't is not that he, or anyone else, "doesn't want to talk about race." We talk about race year-round. The result, however, is not a Grand Acknowledgment That Racism Still Exists, but ambiguity, new questions and even frustration.
We should get used to that. No other shoe is going to drop. There is nothing we are not talking about. Rather, we are dealing with what, in most provinces, is called real life.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor to The Root.
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.