Figuring out what it takes to have a rational conversation about race

I was on the Mike Signorile Show on SIRIUS OutQ 109 on Friday to tackle why it's hard to have productive discussions about race, given the environment of denial and defensiveness that has developed around the subject. It's the second of a series of segments Mike and I plan to have about this (the first segment is here).

Use the player below or click here for the MP3.

We talked about the NC GOP ad flap this week, and also examined how both Oprah and Condi Rice recently received a cold splash of water in the face to remind them of their blackness -- and thus (in the eyes of many who somehow saw them as "post-racial" figures before) they now part of the secret Black Radical Trojan Horse Agenda, a group apparently as dangerous to our culture as The Homosexual Agenda.

In Oprah's case, when she came out in strong support of Barack Obama a good number of her white female viewers weren't happy and let her know that she supported him "only because he's black.

In Condi's case, she gave mild, straightforward kudos to Obama for his speech on race (it was important that Mr. Obama gave it for a whole host of reasons.") and that caused a bigot eruption in Freeperland, which up until this point wanted her VP. All of a sudden her blackness was out in the open and they didn't like what they saw. A sampling:

Is she getting ready to back the candidacy of B. Hussein Obama, or what????

clue condi seems to have been praying at the alter of rev run wright and b. HUSSEIN'S racist wonder clue condi is such a fan of the f'n pali muzzie terrorists and wants to fund their terrorism of Israel...jorge bush should get rid of this incompetent...and many republicans want this a-hole as a VP???

This is the least racist nation on the planet. Tons of affirmative action and welfare money available. If you don't like it GTFO. Find a better place to live like Zimbabwe maybe

Anyway, we also discussed the complete lack of followup to Obama's major speech on race, and how the MSM has gone right back to placing race into the context of the political horse race, not delving deeper into what is behind the demographics of the folks in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

For instance, all these alleged blue-collar lunch bucket folks who don't vote for Obama - is it really about race? If it is, as the talking heads continue to bleat, why aren't reporters going out to do stories on why this is so? Interview some of these voters who cite that race is a factor, and dig deeper?

* Is it that they hold stereotypical views of blacks based on views because of how they were raised, or, say perp walks on TV?
* Do they have any black friends, neighbors or co-workers they are close to?
* What about race troubles them -- affirmative action? Crime?
* Is it the "fear of a black planet" revolution kind of thing?

Wouldn't it be refreshing to have discussions about the above -- to be able to have these questions explored without fear of reprisal and denial? The reporters dance endlessly around the issue, but make all sorts of assumptions that tell us precious little about why race matters to voters, choosing to focus on whether they do. Willingness to look at the former is the key to making progress. I don't have faith that we'll see much reporting from that vantage point.

What's interesting and painful to see is that, even after Barack Obama's speech, too many people really don't have the tools in their emotional toolboxes to 1) call out something they feel is a color aroused bomb, or 2) know how to react when the bomb is tossed out there.

Lacking the tools to dismantle the bomb, the involved parties are either:

1) blown up because they are paralyzed with fear as to what to do next,

2) blown up because they are sitting in front of the bomb arguing what to do about the ticking device, blaming each other for forgetting the tools,

3) run in opposite directions to avoid the explosion, and learn nothing from the experience.

I do all of this thinking aloud about improving the dialogue on race because it helps us all, myself included, figure out what tools we all need to pack to dismantle the bomb the next time we "find" one.

Doing post-mortems on whatever the last color arousal f*ckup -- no matter the cause, regardless of parties involved -- is important, but not if we're screaming at one another, all while trying to convince ourselves that we are more self-aware (or less racist) that the person sitting on the bomb, tied to it because of what they said or did. In the end, too much of the righteous anger ends up being the focus of the discussion, rather than the root causes of implicit bias, and that we need to own up to them to put any rational discussion into context.

Progressives really have a problem on this front, because the painful realization that they don't have the tools often turns into hand-wringing, embarrassment and silence. For some, they may have a hard time thinking about the programming they've received in sheltered or intolerant families growing up, reconciling learned bigotry from people they love. For others, confrontation is simply best avoided because they feel the problem is too large, or that they haven't the "expertise" as the oppressed group to say anything meaningful (that's what I see way too often).

The color-aroused right has a different problem - those folks have no problem owning their biases, but in most cases they don't give a rip about finding the tools because they feel there's nothing in it for them to address racial misunderstanding. To correct themselves would mean equal treatment, and thus a threat to their white privilege.

For the historically oppressed minority group in question, the problem seems to be that they are tired of waiting for the folks in the dominant culture to get a clue and own their implicit biases and get to work on correcting that behavior. That's when the defensive explosions of "are you really that stupid/bigoted/racist" occur and shut the conversations down. It does get tiring to see the same ignorant (blind spot) or malicious race-based "mistakes" occur, particularly when there are plenty of people quick to defend/give a pass to the person making the faux pas and tell the minority to get over it. Little useful analysis is done, no one is interested in acquiring any tools.

And the next bomb the parties find themselves in front of will go off, just as it did the last time. We have to break the cycle.


breaking the cycle

How do we break the cycle when we allow politicians to use these tactics without protesting. Sure the minority group in question can wave flags to bring attention to it. However, that group is the minority. the majority group should stand up and say, we are better than this and we will not allow this anymore. It is not only a GOP issue, now, it has become a democratic issue. When the polls show that one is losing, the first instinct is to jump to race baiting. So not only do we need to address this in the GOP but we also need to address this issue among our own party. I guess the prevailing thought is this: "if you are losing in the polls, pull out confederate caps from a conveniece store and do a press conference". This type of politics is allowed to go on based on the thought of "I am showing my opponents record". In actuality, it is about smearing one side to gain an advantage. I believe that if you plan to play the race card, then show both sides. Has your opponent done anything good for the group you are targeting. If so, why not mention that to. OH I forgot, It's an election they're trying to win.

Thanks for the post - very thought provoking!


How do we break the cycle when we allow politicians to use these tactics without protesting. Sure the minority group in question can wave flags to bring attention to it. However, that group is the minority. the majority group should stand up and say, we are better than this and we will not allow this anymore.

I also say this time and again about dealing with anti-gay tactics. Too often there is silence in arenas other than the LGBT community, when in fact the impact of protesting base tactics is much stronger when straight, or in this case, non-minority allies step forward and call it out as wrong. Fighting racism and homophobia does not require you to be a racial minority or gay -- bigotry is bigotry - don't we all have a stake in cleaning up this mess by having these productive, but difficult discussions?

And I don't mean baiting and flaming, but asking difficult questions, holding people accountable for answers, and exploring that bias does not necessarily mean malice. However, benign neglect, and inability to admit the biases only allows the unchecked malicious bigot eruptions to go unchallenged, and we never get to the really difficult matter of addressing color-aroused ignorance that prevents self-conscious people because they fear it is not a safe environment.

Pam Spaulding
Durham, NC USA

Pam's House Blend

Pam Spaulding
Durham, NC USA

Pam's House Blend

Race is THE issue of the century

as far as I'm concerned. And it's why I ultimately jumped on the Obama bandwagon. He can take this on in a way that none of the other candidates can.

Race shouldn't even exist as a concept.

Racism is an putrid form of collectivism that presupposes we should all be viewed as members of groups based on completely arbitrary characteristics,, and it promotes the idea that our worth derives from the group to which we belong. The battle against racism must be considered as part of a larger battle against collectivism, which is used by politicians, Democrats and Republicans, to grab power and keep it. If we want to win the battle against racism, homophobia, and other ugly forms of collectivism, we have to jettison references to any type of group identity of people, consider everyone solely as individuals, and strive for the concept of individual liberty.

Unfortunately, too many in the Republican and Democratic Parties have no problem whatsoever with the idea of collectivism. It's way too politically expedient for them. Obama is no exception. Everytime I hear him say "we are one people," or launch into some populist class warfare based rhetoric, I cringe. We are 300 million different individuals with 300 million unique attitudes and desires. And sure, there are plenty of abuses in Corporate America, but these abuses come not as a result of the free market based on individual liberty with a strong system of protecting private property rights; they come as a direct result of central planning, lack of protection of private property, and what is defined by politicians as the collective "economic good." Based on his rhetoric and platform positions, I find Obama to be a particularly poor mechanism for combatting racism.

Actually, no.

My skin color is a palish tint of brown. My cheeks are rosy red, and I have spots on my skin that are white because I have lost pigmentation. Really, everyone's skin color is a tint of brown, unless one's skin has no pigmentation, in which case your skin would be very close to being white in color.

In any event, I would never define myself as "white" as people tend to define themselves racially. I consider myself to be an individual. I consider everyone to be an individual. How can it possibly be conceived as offensive that I hate racism because it is an ugly form of collectivism, and that I view Obama as someone who would be ineffective in combating racism because he has demonstrated a collectivist view of the world?

One trait of white culture is individualism

I would really challenge you to test your beliefs out in open dialogue with a wide range of people of color. I think James pegged you as white because the things you've said are pretty unlikely to have come from a person of color. I think you should consider what that means.

I'll push this point: Race is ascribed but not defined. No matter how you want to identify yourself, when you walk in the room people don't think "Who's that palish tint of brown guy." But I guarantee that some people have asked "Who's that white guy?" You don't get to choose what race is ascribed to you.

You do get to define yourself. Obviously, you have tried to describe yourself without regard to race. Why would that be? Why would anyone want to be color blind? My belief is that people only want to hide/avoid race when they see it as being negative.

But most people of color see their skin color as a part of who they are that can't be denied, and they don't want others to be blind to it. And even though they are well aware of racism, that's not what defines their racial experience. Race is attached to culture, and culture brings so many positive things with it. Why avoid or be blind to the positive aspects?

Individualism is not a trait of culture, period.

I don't even like the notion of culture. The concept of culture necessitates that we view everyone in society as belonging to a collective group that observes the same values and practices. I reject this notion outright. Individualism is a concept derived from the thoughts of, well, individuals. It is an ideal which there's no such thing as culture or any other type of collectivist definition of people. What you're essentially implying here is that you have to be a member of a certain group in order to believe in individualism. That's an inherently contradictory ideal.

"You don't get to choose what race is ascribed to you."

No, I can't. But I do get to choose whether or not I accept that definition. And I don't.

"Why would that be? Why would anyone want to be color blind? My belief is that people only want to hide/avoid race when they see it as being negative."

I view the concept of race as a negative concept, because it's collectivist in nature, demeans people's worth and identity as unique individuals, and generates negative consequences including hate, violence, and division when it's manipulated. In this statement, you're trying to suggest that I'm somehow a racist because I don't like the concept of race. That's, again, an inherently contradictory statement, because racists by definition adhere to the concept of race. Therefore, since I don't like the concept of race, I can't be a racist.

No, what you are is not a racist.

But you do seem to be swimming in the river of denial.

Whether you like or dislike the concept of race (or any other label that we use to divide/associate with one another) is irrelevant to its existence or its consequences.

Race is not a scientific concept, but it is a concept that humans naturally embrace, because human beings naturally embrace ways to identify who is or isn't of one's tribe or family. It's a very natural though not always useful tendency that has been part of our survival strategy/evolution since before our friend Caveman was buried in ice. It is also, as you've noted, responsible for some of the worst in human behaviors -- including genocide.

Whatever your preferences for identification, it is extremely unlikely that you are, by dint of your distaste for what you call "collectivism," thus cleansed of or insulated from its effects on your perceptions or reactions.

I have nothing against your being 'against' what you are calling collectivism, but it's one thing to protest a tendency and another to pretend that it isn't real.

Obama is an inspiration to many of us out here who deplore racism but realize, as does he, that you don't defeat it by pretending we can think it away.

As long as there are differences among us, we humans will exploit them. If we all had the same skin color, we'd still figure out a way -- perhaps by the part in one's hair -- to say "s/he is other, not my kind"

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing
-Edmund Burke


Dr. Suess explained it best in his wonderful story The Sneetches.

Sneetches are a race of odd, yellow creatures who live on a beach. Some Sneetches have a star on their bellies, and in the beginning of the story the presence or absence of a star is the basis for discrimination. Sneetches who have stars on their bellies are part of the "in crowd", while Sneetches without stars are shunned and consequently mopey.

In the story, a "fix-it-up chappie" named Sylvester McMonkey McBean appears, driving a cart of strange machines. He offers the Sneetches without stars a chance to have them by going through his Star-On machine, for three dollars. The treatment is instantly popular, but this upsets the old star-bellied Sneetches, as they are in danger of losing their method for discriminating between classes of Sneetches. Then McBean tells them about his Star-Off machine, costing ten dollars. The Sneetches formerly with stars happily pay the money to have them removed in order to remain special.

However McBean, does not share the prejudices of the Sneetches, and allows the recently starred Sneetches through this machine as well. Ultimately this escalates, with the Sneetches running from one machine to the next,

"until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew
whether this one was that one or that one was this one
or which one was what one... or what one was who."

This continues until the Sneetches are penniless and McBean leaves a rich man. In the end, the Sneetches learn that neither plain-belly nor star-belly Sneetches are superior, and they are able to get along and become friends.

You haven't lived until you've acted this out with a diverse group of third graders. What a hoot! We all learned a lot.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi
Pointing at Naked Emperors

You are a product of collectivism,

ergo you can never achieve the level of individualism you aspire to. Without the protection and support of these "groups" of which you (think you) shun, you would have died shortly after delivery from the womb.

It's fine to pursue individualism for yourself, but to eschew all forms of collectivism is naive. Jeffersonian principles were only a part of our success as a country, and a balancing one at that. Had all Americans embraced the philosophy of individualism, Jefferson himself would have seen us conquered before he died.

Ayn't Right

You've been reading way too much Ayn Rand

By the way your other hero BJ Lawson gave $250 to the North Carolina Republican Executive Committee which paid for the color-coded ad.

Pink Panther undercover BBQ?

By the way your other hero BJ Lawson gave $250 to the North Carolina Republican Executive Committee which paid for the color-coded ad* Great Architect?

Will try to drop by -- perhaps incognito :-)


Which explains why BJ didn't show today! Unless you were Inspector BJ [Clousseaw] that I was chatting with today?

We had absolutely no way to know....

that that ad would ever be made, let alone that B.J.'s contribution would finance its production. The money was donated long before the ad was produced. Lots of other candidates donated to the Executive Committee. It's typical for candidates of both parties to contribute to the Executive Committee. Bob Orr, who also condemns the ad, also contributed to the NC GOP Executive Committee. Is he to be blamed for the ad, too? Is every person who's ever donated to a campaign or a Party Committee to be blamed for what is done with the money when they had no way of knowing it would be done?

We regret this sincerely whether or not B.J.'s contribution went to the ad. B.J. has already released a statement criticizing the ad on his campaign blog, and I posted on Friday with another response from the campaign. We in no way endorse this ad.

And to the other poster who followed, B.J. wasn't around this weekend because he had an extremely busy schedule. It happens when you're running for Congress. This last week before the primary is going to be hellacious. I can get him to come on here in the next couple of days and say a couple of words, if you'd like.

As for reading "too much Ayn Rand," I didn't know that was possible. ;) She's influenced me a great deal, but I do disagree with her on some things.


And sure, there are plenty of abuses in Corporate America, but these abuses come not as a result of the free market based on individual liberty with a strong system of protecting private property rights; they come as a direct result of central planning, lack of protection of private property, and what is defined by politicians as the collective "economic good."

Did you really just say that?

It means no text

we have to put something in the box.

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

I see.


I am reminded of the words

I am reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was apparently quoting Billy Graham from a 1950s Reader's Digest article on racism):

Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.

Churches are a good place to start the dialogue, but the dialogue can't start and end there.

That is so true.

I find it amusing at times, and sad at others, how easily people tell you whether a certain church is a "black church" or a "white church". I must say, I've been made more welcome as a visitor in "black" churches than I have been in "white" churches. (I don't as a rule go to church - it's not my thing.)

If I ever did - I know the church I'd go to, and I'd be the only white face there.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi
Pointing at Naked Emperors

This discussion of race....

was bound to come up. How some prepared some were for the discussion has been the problem. I've noticed what I refer to as a parallel reality, where folks of a race or demographic can view the same issue completely different. Remember: "walk a mile in my shoes.....?"

In the end, the primary and GE may boil down to race, but what will show true is - our behavior has become the issue of this year's election season.

Deborah W.

Thanks Pam

I really wanted to talk with you this afternoon to tell you how much I appreciated this post. Unfortunately, I think you left while I was still chattin' up someone else. Anyhow, you put a lot of things I've been thinking about into a great post. Thanks.

sorry we didn't connect

Had to skip out (lost track of time I was having such a good time). Thanks for the props on the post. Opening the right kind of dialogue is absolutely critical, and it's frustrating to see the deeper discussion shuttled off in favor of the horse race numbers game, denial or defensiveness.

Pam Spaulding
Durham, NC USA

Pam's House Blend

Pam Spaulding
Durham, NC USA

Pam's House Blend

It is a shame that we can't have intelligent conversations on

race or sexual preference or any other difficult topic. It might be easier though if we didn't refer to the folks we are trying to enter discussions with as

alleged blue-collar lunch bucket folks...

I live around a lot of folks who simply haven't moved forward where race is concerned. Moving here was like going back in time. I'm not totally sure where we are in the process here, but I'm fairly certain that the people I know working in blue collar jobs aren't going to engage in meaningful conversations on race with us if we are looking down our noses at them. I realize that might be a label you are simply quoting, but why perpetuate it? Simply call them white, blue collar voters or white rural voters.

.....oh and I know my comment above is so going to come back to bite me in the butt when I refer to Republicans collectively as idiots.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

blue-collar lunch bucket folks

That's not my name for these voters, it's one of the euphemisms used by the MSM in its coverage of this demo. The Archie Bunker vote, Joe Six-Pack, I've heard a host of these.

My wonderful family in NYC is full of working-class and pink collar relatives, my grandfather was a railroad porter who raised 14 kids, so aside from not being white, they fall clearly in the same socioeconomic place as the above-mentioned demo. The main difference, of course is race. What many white progressives (and certainly the MSM) avoid is an examination of why a segment of these voters will absolutely not vote for a black man. It's clearly not just working class status, it's culture of biases being passed down within those families.

Instead, the question that keeps being posed as to how will Obama win these voters, not why it is not possible, in a certain slice of America to win -- no matter your qualifications -- this demo if the candidate is black.

From an excellent diary, "How Kentucky, West Virginia and Racism Could Screw Up the Clinton Exit," a reality check:

On Wednesday, I was in Inez, Kentucky, the Appalachian town where L.B.J. declared war on poverty forty-four years ago this month. John McCain was on a tour of "forgotten places"...After [McCain's] speech, I left the county courthouse and crossed the main street to talk to a small group of demonstrators holding signs next to McCain’s campaign bus. J. K. Patrick, a retired state employee from a neighboring county, wore a button on his shirt that said "Hillary: Smart Choice."

"East of Lexington she’ll carry seventy per cent of the primary vote," he said. Kentucky votes on May 20. "She could win the general election in Kentucky." I asked about Obama. "Obama couldn’t win."

Why not?

"Race," Patrick said matter-of-factly. "I’ve talked to people—a woman who was chair of county elections last year, she said she wouldn’t vote for a black man." Patrick said he wouldn’t vote for Obama either.

Why not?

"Race. I really don’t want an African-American as President. Race."

What about race?

"I thought about it. I think he would put too many minorities in positions over the white race. That’s my opinion. After 1964, you saw what the South did." He meant that it went Republican. "Now what caused that? Race. There’s a lot of white people that just wouldn’t vote for a colored person. Especially older people. They know what happened in the sixties. Under thirty—they don’t remember. I do. I was here."

Everyone knows that race is a factor in Obama’s low vote among older whites, though reporters say that no one will admit it personally. In Eastern Kentucky, people (and not just J. K. Patrick) admit it personally, without hesitation or apology. It’s impossible to say how much this has affected the primary or will affect the fall election. For voters like those I met in Inez, the objection to Obama has nothing to do with Reverend Jeremiah Wright or, God knows, Bill Ayers. There’s nothing Obama can do about it. He can’t even mention it.

As I've told some of my white progressive blogger friends, I've been blogging about this issue for a long time, but it's time for them to stop hiding behind the clean hands abstraction of polls and metrics and take a deep breath and open up the more difficult discussion about race in America -- and that's uncomfortable territory. That man's statements above reflect a reality that few voice, but certainly believe and will guide their vote.

However, if this is not taken on, the color-arousal tactics of the GOP (and Clinton, for that matter), will be proven again as the best way to play the game of politics. The GOP counts on white progressive silence to roll over every time.

The bottom line is that it's easy to dismiss calls from people of color for a dialogue, much in the same way it is harder to achieve results in LGBT equality if we don't have straight allies willing to step up.

Pam Spaulding
Durham, NC USA

Pam's House Blend

Pam Spaulding
Durham, NC USA

Pam's House Blend

I didn't think you had coined the phrase

I also didn't mean to imply in any way shape or form that you aren't sympathetic to blue collar, rural or other voters.

This move from Mecklenburg to Union has been a huge culture shock. My kids knew about racism, but had never seen it displayed so blatantly among their peers. It isn't usually directed at anyone, it's in the course of conversation.

This community is very polarized and there is some of tension. We saw a little bit of it at the convention. I'm still trying to wrap my brain around all this. When it is something you sense and not something you actually witness, how do you address it? It's easy to correct actions or speak out against something that's blatant and we do, but other than setting an example of inclusion and not going along just to get along - how do you address something that you only sense and that you don't actually witness?

There are a lot of discussions we need to have and we need to make sure everyone is invited to the table and we need to make sure they feel they belong at the table once they are invited. The MSM apparently isn't interested in open, inclusive discussions. They're too busy making up cute little labels.

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.