You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

From Ricci To Gates-gate: Listening To "the Conversation"

Gates-gate is the culmination of one of those occasional spates of race-related events that occur and flow into one another over a month or so. These spates are, in fact, precisely the “conversation” on race that Attorney General Eric Holder claims does not happen in America.

What, after all, has all of this talk been from the Ricci decision through to the uproar over what happened on Henry Louis Gates’ front porch? If this hasn’t been conversation, of a thoroughly vital nature, then there is a fundamental disagreement as to what conversation is.

As I argued here earlier this year, the issue is not that America is in some kind of denial about race. It is that people like Holder are frustrated that America does not arrive at a conclusion that black America’s main problem is still racism. The reason is because it isn’t – and that’s what The Conversation has been reaffirming over the past four weeks. It’s been quite a ride, through which this single consistent thread has run.

The Ricci decision, reversing a decision to accommodate the less-than-excellent performance of black firefighters on a promotion test by throwing out its results, was Exhibit A. The key issue was whether the test, in having “disparate impact” on black test takers, was therefore an inappropriate requirement. To decree that it was would have left an elephant in the middle of the room – an assumption that black firefighters simply could not, under any realistic conditions, be expected to perform as well as the others.

The Supremes--the majority being, in this case, mostly “wise Caucasians”--rejected this condescending overapplication of the disparate impact doctrine. And where are we now?

Cries from assorted quarters that the very possibility of Civil Rights claims are now threatened were as predictable as rain. But we’ll see plenty of Civil Rights litigation in the future – only based on what discrimination was thought of as being in the old days. Bayard Rustin, Roger Wilkins and A. Phillip Randolph would have been appalled at the idea of calling for black people to duck a challenge as “Civil Rights,” and in this, they were “wise Blacks” indeed.

Mainstream thought, in the meantime, is on the Supreme Court’s side. The upshot of the “conversation” about Ricci has been that at the end of the day, refusing the white firefighters the promotions they earned by following the rules as they were when they took the test just isn’t fair. Or, that it can only be seen as fair according to a torturous kind of reasoning that only compels a certain subset of people who seem driven more by emotion than logic.

You can be perfectly aware of racism, its history, its legacies and the rest--and still be unable to reconcile yourself to the thought of Mr. Ricci denied his promotion because black colleagues didn’t do as well on the test as he did. That is a Conversation no more inherently flawed than, say, Brown v. Board--argued against via torturous argument by many at the time.

Then came the grilling of Sonia Sotomayor. Okay, Republicans pushed too hard on the “wise Latina” comment and the issue of empathy. It was clearly the attempt of a party on the ropes trying to play to the base and pretend some semblance of ideological passion. But attempts to portray Sotomayor as Anita Hill redux were, most charitably, an attempt by journalists bored with the formulaic nature of the hearings to make something out of nothing.

They certainly were neither historiography nor honest commentary. Sotomayor was not a victim of racism during those hearings in any way worthy of comment. Her critical questioners would, in a cartoon, have squeaky voices.

Any sense of her as under some kind of civically inappropriate threat were based on a similar sense during Barack Obama’s campaign that it was somehow gauche to subject a black candidate to the kind of pressures we expect white ones to accept as a matter of course.

She acquitted herself well (including sidestepping the sloppy “wise Latina” business as she had to), is clearly highly qualified for the position, and will be confirmed. The Conversation does not now assume that the Sotomayor hearings were most interesting in proving that Selma isn’t as far back as we think. The Conversation is now that, well, we have a gifted Latina female Supreme Court justice--a conclusion based on psychic health rather than paranoia.

Next up: Obama lectures the NAACP on “responsibility” and the usual black suspects complain about the media eating up speeches by black people of that kind (perfect example of this sort of take here). We are to worry that this is about white people not understanding that they are still “on the hook.” But this worry will not touch the national Conversation for a simple reason: black people like speeches about responsibility.

The NAACP audience was cheering Obama along. Just as the black audience was at his similar “Father’s Day speech” last year, despite Jesse Jackson’s famous discomfort expressed via a threat to deprive Obama of flowering equipment. And just as black audiences across the country lustily applaud Bill Cosby’s “responsibility” speeches despite the wary coverage of his message by black journalists--a different breed from black folks. Or just as you can watch black audiences cheering for comedians like Chris Rock when they strike the “responsibility” chord. (“’I ain’t never been to jail.’ What do you want, a cookie?”)

The people itching whenever blacks are reminded that they are masters of their fate--i.e. that they are human--do not set the terms of The Conversation in 2009 and never will again. They are, today, a powerless minority, overrepresented among academics and writers and good for TV hits, but out of step with how the largest number of black people think. A black professor I will not name tried putting over the “you are powerless victims” message on a mostly black bookstore audience a few years ago and met so much resistance things almost got ugly.

And finally, Gates-gate. As my Bloggingheads sparring partner Glenn Loury nailed it Sunday in the Times, people have leapt in to point to what happened to Gates as evidence that racism is still front and center in American life. In my previous post I tried to explain the roots of Gates’ piqued reaction to what happened to him. My conclusion, more explicit here, is that whites and blacks need to work together to keep cops from encountering black men at all any more than they encounter whites, and to help dispel stereotypes that are not entirely disconnected from fact--for reasons that do not lend themselves to blame but are real nevertheless (on this, see again Glenn’s piece).

However, The Conversation on this has still refused to go the way the usual suspects were hoping. Obama first condemned Sergeant Crowley--which the Racism Forever crowd could take as making up for the “punitive” NAACP speech. But the next day he apologized and invited Crowley (and Gates) to the White House to talk things out. So--no imprimatur from on high for keeping the white man “on the hook.” Obama’s fundamental reflectiveness extends to refusing to enable this camp--Hallelujah.

Plus, the Gates incident will never resonate the way, say, the shooting death of Amadou Diallo did eleven years ago. Gates was questioned in his house, but arrested for his highly belligerent behavior. Crowley is not a Klansman in his spare time, but actually taught classes on avoiding racial profiling, and has no record of racial problems a la Mark Fuhrman in the O.J. days. The Diallo incident was plainly all the cops’ fault. The Gates case was a subtle business for which we have two crucially differing stories, with plenty of blacks feeling, along with whites, that Gates needed to just calm down (Richard Thompson Ford at Slate has a representative view of the reflective black take on the matter).

The Conversation has classified Gates-gate as a strange, sad, tangled affair. That is: what America has concluded is that there is some racism and it may have played some role in what happened on that porch--but a great deal of what happened was, understandably or not, about Gates rather than racism.

The Conversation is going to keep coming out this way. If it were to come out the way the naysayers want it to--and think about how odd and tragic it is that so many want the situation to be worse than it is--then the New Haven firefighters’ test would include questions about whether Bordeaux is a kind of Sauvignon Blanc, Sonia Sotomayor would have been asked why she thought a Latina was qualified to sit on the Supreme Court at all, Obama’s NAACP speech would have made a joke about welfare queens, and Gates would have been stopped in his car and pulled out and slammed against a wall for asking why.

Only in that America would we need to have a Conversation on Race different from the one we are having. That one acknowledges something the professional Cassandras, despite their keen minds and extensive educations, cannot: progress that is incomplete, yet so vast that the lenses of the old days are no longer of use.

There comes a time when racism is just what it’s most stimulating to talk about. Helping people is about work.