Monday, October 01, 2007

Conversation requires a presumption of good faith

Last Thursday, I participated in a discussion of the O'Reilly controversy on WMCS. I suspect it was entertaining, but I increasingly find the whole thing depressing.

O'Reilly was trying to make a point about the ways in which white people misapprehend black culture and the way in which hip hop culture feeds those misapprehensions. He may not have made it with the aplomb that he ought to have made it and he made not have included all the necessary disqualifiers like, well, of course, every one should have expected the scene at Sylvia's in Harlem to be as it was. A huge emphasis is placed on the statement that he "couldn't get over" what he observed at Sylvia's, although, as I have already blogged, the context in which he made the statement and his reference to conversations that he had with his grandmother over 40 years ago suggests another interpretation.

My colleagues made statements that are just as stereotypical as the ones that they wrongly accuse O'Reilly of. Bill is "too old" to have his first experience with civil black people at Sylvia's in 2007. But the problem there is that we know - at the very least from his statements about his grandma, that this is not true.

Another said that "Billie" had culture shock because he finally got to the hood. But we know, because Al Sharpton has told us, that O'Reilly has dined in Harlem with him on more than one occasion.

On the one hand, I can understand this. O'Reilly began his discussion by making the point that every black person in America has experienced racial stereotypes and that has to affect the way that you see the world. A local blogger, Rene Crawford, recently wrote a post that discussed her experience of what she saw as subtle racism. I have no doubt that some of what she describes reflects racial stereotypes. That's problematic because, although it may not have hurt Rene for people to call her "polite," the fact that the stereotypes exist can have more troublesome manifestations.

But another local blogger, Nick Schweitzer, wrote an interesting response. The trouble with the search for "subtle" racism is that it is without content. There are no standards and we can find or not find it as we see fit.

During the break during the discussion on MCS, one of my colleagues, Curt Harris, observed that we come from different experiences and this bears upon how we see things. Absolutely true but that is part of the problem and not the key to a solution. An African-American might say that she "knows" that something is racially motivated because she can recall instances when it turned out that similar things were the product of racial bias. A white person may respond that he "knows" it is not, because he can recall white people doing the same thing without racial motivation.

My problem with the reaction to O'Reilly is bound up with two things. First, I think it's largely a product of the left-right war. It's more about O'Reilly than about what he said.

Second (and more importantly), I think that it reflects an approach to race that is rooted in a time when racism was far more pervasive and threatening that it is today. While that doesn't mean that racism is not still a problem, a good deal of our discussion about race today probably needs to focus on things other than racial bias. We need to talk about things that may be, in some sense, a product of historical bias and our response to it, but that won't be ameliorated by the elimination of bias.

That was what O'Reilly was trying - however clumsily - to do. I know that at least two of my interlocutors on MCS agree with the larger point he was making about hip hop culture. To draw on another local example, there was an immediate reaction to John McAdams study on racial disparities in incarceration in WI Interest which I believe missed the point because the critics focused on the old racial template. But yesterday, in the New York Times, a black sociologist named Orlando Patterson who is not, in any sense, a conservative pointed out the obvious. Addressing racial bias in the criminal justice system is a worthy and essential goal, but eliminating it will not do away with the racial disparity in incarceration. The solution to that lies elsewhere.

It's going to be hard, however, to talk about that if we enforce a racial speech code that is both hyperactively aggressive and wildly subjective. In light of our racial past, white people need to try to be sensitive about what they say. But we also ought to recognize the sea change in our country and start to presume good faith. Without that, we'll stay stuck in 1967 and that's not a good place to be.


Dad29 said...

Nick's observation is extremely important--the "standards" question is as old as the "man with a lamp" and/or "one-eyed man" problem.

Patrick said...

I heard the radio segment, it was incredibly frustrating to listen to, I can't imagine how frustrating it had to be to sit with these people as they ranted.

Crawford's Take said...

Patrick you clearly didn't read my post...

the tone of you saying "these people" as if they are somehow different than the implied "our" people is exactly the point.


Mike Plaisted said...

You know what, Rick, I don't accept that O'Reilly, Limbaugh, Sykes or Belling come to racial issues in "good faith". They have built their careers on stirring up the "angry white male" -- it is Nixon's Southern Strategy brought to the radio marketplace. When Sykes calls black leaders "pimps" (unfathomably alright with you) and when Belling talks about black women "popping out babies" (you say you don't listen to the show, but the podcasts are readily available), they are using not even thinly veiled code words for well-understood racist concepts.

As for O'Reilly, I don't know why anyone would assume "good faith" on the part of someone who stirs up racial axiety on purpose and then complains when it's pointed out. He's a big dumb jerk and proud of it. He has as much legitimate to offer on race relations as I do with who gets the GOP nomination (oh, please nominate Romney, please!).

People who want to be accepted in "good faith" have to do something besides tear down. They have to accept that there is a race problem in America. They can't just sit on the sidelines, throw spitballs, and call people trying to make a difference "pimps".

And O'Reilly knows what he said is wrong. That's why he can only attack those who point it out. He has yet to address the substance of his "can't get over" comment. He thinks he can hide behind Juan Williams unfortunate skirts forever, which, given Williams' pro-Fox disposition, he probably can.

And then there are people like you, Rick, who think that O'Reilly is acting in good faith and Jesse Jackson is a "pimp". You've got that exactly backward.

Rick Esenberg said...

I am not going to use the word "rant" because I dislike when it is applied to conservative talk show hosts and I don't think it is fair to say that everyone on the air was overly excited.

As for Rene's comment, certainly Patrick knows that two of the four people I was on the air with are not African-American. Is it fair to think that his reference to "these people" must be a statement about race?

Rick Esenberg said...


The problem, I think, is that you come close to assuming that people who don't agree with your take on the race problem and what to do with it are racist or are trying to stir up white people. But, you know, reasonable people can and do disagree with you.

I suppose that I could go and listen to Belling's podcasts but, since I didn't defend him (just didn't attack him), I see no need to do so and, as you know, life is short. I said that I disagree with you about Sykes and O'Reilly's comments about Sylvia's. I stand by that.

Anonymous said...


You did mean "these/our" people as defined by
"liberal/conservative" didn't you?

I thought so.

John McAdams said...

To Mike Plaisted: Jackson and Sharpton are pimps.

Failure to recognize that poisons any discussion.

As for this:

People who want to be accepted in "good faith" have to do something besides tear down. They have to accept that there is a race problem in America. They can't just sit on the sidelines, throw spitballs, and call people trying to make a difference "pimps".

You are begging the question.

You are assuming that the racial hustling of Jackson and Sharpton is "trying to make a difference."

In fact, those guys are self-aggrandizing clowns.

"Throwing spitballs?"

As long as you guys preach nonsense, knocking it down is an honorable enterprise.

You've played the race card too long. It's not 1963.

Anonymous said...

there's one other point missing here.

If O'Reilly really cared about the issue - why is there absolutely no discussion about the obligation of WHITES to address their racist attitudes? In the segment everyone's talking about, O'Reilly explicitly admitted that most African-Americans have been subjected to racist attacks - but then who does he throw the burden of fixing it on? African-Americans!

I might have taken it more seriously if, after making his statement about African-Americans being subject to racist attacks, he'd gone on to say that he and his white listeners needed to do something to help stop that from happening.

But you didn't hear that, did you?