Saturday, September 17, 2011

"A nation of cowards"

The recent purge and boycott at Daily Kos are important to me not because I think that blog platform is important in the political scheme of things. But rather because it speaks to a very real issue that we all need to face in this country...the fact that we don't seem to be able to have the conversation about race - not even amongst progressives.

And so, as I watched it all unfold, I couldn't help but think of the speech Attorney General Eric Holder gave in recognition of Black History Month back in 2009.

Here are a few excerpts.

One cannot truly understand America without understanding the historical experience of black people in this nation. Simply put, to get to the heart of this country one must examine its racial soul.

Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.

Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation’s history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us...

We know, by "American instinct" and by learned behavior, that certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks, at best embarrassment, and, at worst, the questioning of one’s character...Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race conscious and yet is voluntarily socially segregated...

And so we should use events such as this to not only learn more about the facts of black history but also to learn more about each other. This will be, at first, a process that is both awkward and painful but the rewards are potentially great. The alternative is to allow to continue the polite, restrained mixing that now passes as meaningful interaction but that accomplishes little. Imagine if you will situations where people- regardless of their skin color- could confront racial issues freely and without fear. The potential of this country, that is becoming increasingly diverse, would be greatly enhanced. I fear however, that we are taking steps that, rather than advancing us as a nation are actually dividing us even further. We still speak too much of "them" and not "us"...Our history has demonstrated that the vast majority of Americans are uncomfortable with, and would like to not have to deal with, racial matters and that is why those, black or white, elected or self-appointed, who promise relief in easy, quick solutions, no matter how divisive, are embraced. We are then free to retreat to our race protected cocoons where much is comfortable and where progress is not really made...We cannot allow this to happen and one way to prevent such an unwelcome outcome is to engage one another more routinely- and to do so now.

Remember the flack he got for saying this? I certainly don't remember most white progressives "having his back" on this one.

And yet he was speaking a powerful truth that we need to hear. As the dust-up at Daily Kos shows...we are a nation of cowards when it comes to the conversation about race.

Why is that?

I think its because such a conversation is hard and requires painful self-reflection. And as long as whites are in the majority - we don't have to do that. We can avoid it by claiming that our pain in confronting it is caused by the manner in which it is pointed out to us - rather than something we have to face.

And yes, it takes courage on both sides. For people like me, it takes the courage of being willing to find out you are wrong (or ignorant) about some things. And for people of color it takes tremendous courage to once again believe that someone will listen and to deal with the anger that's built up over centuries when they haven't.

If you're white and interested in having the conversation, Jonathan Odell has some pointers.

It’s hard work. The illusion that a relationship is good if it is easy needs to be dispelled...

There is an honest, open give and take, non-defensive dialogue: This may sound obvious, but a lot can go wrong when you are trying to prove you are not a racist, intolerant or even mildly prejudiced. Let it go. Defending your credentials deflects attention from the issue at hand.

The emphasis is not getting it right, just on getting it: You have to step out of the “right or wrong” dilemma. The point is not to agree or debate, or to win, but to understand. This takes an entirely different type of listening...

There is a high tolerance for discomfort, especially your own: The more you try to act like you know what you are doing, the less likely you are to connect authentically. Don’t feign certainty to cover up ignorance. You cheat yourself out of learning.

There is a distrust of quick fixes that smooth over the issue of race: Problems that get fixed with “I think we are saying the same thing,” or “It’s only semantics,” or “let’s just agree to disagree,” or “lets focus on our similarities,” will not stay fixed.

The language you use is personal, not corporate-speak or diversity-polite; There is a willingness to speak to the moment, instead of using safe, tested scripts: People can tell when you are handing them a line or being patronizing. It is necessary to address the person and the issue with the freshness and curiosity and the vulnerability of a first-time experience...

You have to be willing to work harder than the other person: Don’t expect tit-for-tat or immediate reciprocity or overwhelming gratitude. That’s not the way history is undone. You may have to risk going first many, many times before people take you at your word.

The other person can’t take on the task of teaching you: “Just tell me what you want,” is translated into, “You are too difficult to figure out and not worth my time. Give me the Cliff Notes” It’s not far from there to, “If you would do it our way, things wouldn’t be so difficult (for me).”...

There has to be unqualified acceptance that the other person is the expert on the way they see things: You will save tons of time and frustration by not trying to convince the other person that their reality is faulty, that if they would be rational, they would take your word for how things are. “Let me see if I can understand how you see it,” are magical words.

It’s ok not to get it and admit it: Understanding takes work. Pretending to understand, when you don’t, for the sake of your image, is the final contract for losers. “Since we aren’t up to the work, let’s just say we did it and go home.”

There is a tolerance for “button pushing”: There are certain loaded phrases that can make us give up on each other and immediately bring a halt to the conversation, i.e. “You people,” “typical white male.” Don’t let them. Hang in there and get beneath them. Forgive each other in advance. Learn to be interested in why the other person would react so strongly to your use of certain phrases rather than defending your choice to use them.

Give up the illusion that you are going to role model perfection. This only gives you and everybody else an ulcer...

There is no permanent fix: Sorry, there is no final answer. Diversity is not a problem to be solved, but an ongoing set of challenges. Success is the ability to respond authentically to each one as they arise. You will never stop adding to your took kit.

If you don't get how hard it is by now, you're not paying attention. If we're ever going to be something other than a "nation of cowards," this is what it will take. I certainly don't expect any of that from the Tea Party crowd. But perhaps we progressives could at least give it a try.


  1. Good stuff as always.

    But me too tired to keep talking--

  2. No offense Chauncey, but I suppose you know this wasn't necessarily written for you. I need to talk to "my people" for awhile.

    For what its worth, I think folks like you deserve to sit back and rest every now and then. You've gotten us this far. Some of us need to pick up the baton and carry it for awhile.

  3. Self-reflection was never the strong point of Daily Kos. It started off as a badly-needed abrasiveness against the then-hegemonic BLAST of conservatism, but as with all things, the tragedy of life is that what is a strength in one respect is always a weakness in another respect.

    In any case, your post named part of what I'm trying to sort through as I reflect on my own reasons for leaving at the boycott.

  4. "The emphasis is not getting it right, just on getting it: You have to step out of the “right or wrong” dilemma. The point is not to agree or debate, or to win, but to understand. This takes an entirely different type of listening..."

    Listening is possibly more difficult to do via this medium than in face-to-face conversations. however, the possibility of face-to-face conversations about race is less apt to be as available as an interaction on-line.

    i know i am blessed at this point in time to be engaged with face-to-face discussions about politics and race because of my current work focus. i can watch, as well as engage, in the flow of information, impression and change.

    my regret is that i'm not here often enough to relate these stories as often as i'd like.

    there is change happenin' in Peoria. there is change happenin' on the progressive blogs.

    the "meaning" of the boycott won't be clear until it's over, it's been assimilated, chewed and slept on. it is a moment in history. what we do, and say, then, now and in the future matters to the forward movement of this progressive, forward movement.

  5. And you named part of why I left. The lack of self-reflection. I understand why that worked in the beginning. But its way past time to adapt.

  6. Oops, my above comment about self-reflection was to dirkster.

    Howdy sige! After I posted this I started thinking about the challenges of listening online. I do think its harder. But I'm not quite sure that's because of the medium or whether its the time period in which it exploded into being.

  7. Robinswing's diary: "We Can't Fix Ya":!?via=user

    for anyone who hasn't read it, or who wants to read it again. the link goes back to DailyKos, so some might want to wait until the boycott is over before reading.

  8. well, i'm thinking it's just about time to call you. ;-)

    i know i'm a fast reader, who tends to skim. unless the person who is writing happens to be a brilliant (and that's entirely subjective!) writer, i don't take the time to slow down and catch the nuances. in person, i'm more apt to catch those nuances because the quality of speech, to me, matters so much less than the quality of writing. that's the bias i bring. i have to slow down to read and catch the image being presented.

  9. sige - I thought of that one today too. Thanks so much for grabbing the link!

  10. Thanx for the attempt at rationalization of the unavoidable for the unwilling. The members of the privileged and thus powerful classes of every racial stripe are such that "they" are thus unwilling to ever feel responsible enough to neither confront or even confide any responsibility to improve conditions or the circumstances conducive to reaching if not consensus, than at least communication. Kos the they and his crew are just exercising the privileges inherent in being the in group and ostracizing those who're the out group, really no loss to be honest, as they've traded relevance for access a long time ago.....

  11. Anon, i'm enjoying (if that is the appropriate word!) the links from Smartypants to other progressive blogs, and vice versa, for providing smaller, yet full-to-the-brim insight on any manner of issues, mostly especially race relations.

    this is the new fringe. :-) of course, i was never a kossack because i never considered it fringe enough.

    really liked this sentence of yours: "The members of the privileged and thus powerful classes of every racial stripe are such that "they" are thus unwilling to ever feel responsible enough to neither confront or even confide any responsibility to improve conditions or the circumstances conducive to reaching if not consensus, than at least communication."

  12. ... correction. not smaller insight, smaller noise-to-ratio. more bang for my click. :-)

  13. Anonymous @ 1:42 - I don't know where you got the notion that I was trying to rationalize anything for anyone.

    I'm merely naming what IS and providing my thoughts on what it would take to change.

  14. Thanks, very good post. I appreciate it. Maybe with all this happening, some of us white folks will rethink our responsibilities in regards to 'getting it' which is so minimal but essential in terms of moving forward. I want to dismantle oppression. I want to have conversations with people who are serious about it. Thanks again with much love and respect. sberel

  15. "I want to have conversations with people who are serious about it."

    that's perfect, sberel. and that's all i have the time and energy for as well. well said.

  16. Mo'nin', Ms. Pants

    FABulous as always. You DO be jammin'! And, I will add this...

    So...I see some folk who have responded say that they want matters to move forward to the better.


    But....HOW should you do this?? I'd like to throw out for consideration that, if you REALLY mean it, then, the kind of engagement that this is going to take will NOT happen if you just "would like" or "wish" that it would.

    Means you're gonna have to be "intentional".

    That is, ON PURPOSE, you would have to seek out who you'd like to work some of this out with and PUT YOURSELF IN A DIFFERENT SITUATION.

    Hence some of what A.G. Holder means re: the "coward" aspect.

    Putting some "skin" in the game, generally speaking, goes a ways in, certainly with black folk, giving you credibility. And, because, as has been stated, at least so far, you haven't had to (thaaaat is gonna change as time continues to pass, though).

    No. You DON'T have to do what Ms. Pants does, but change is not gonna happen just because of intellectually conceptualizing it(gee....might Yes WE Can actually have some MEAT on it's bones??? naaaah....THAT couldn't be right, could it?? :-) )

    This, it seems to me, is what happened at Kos. And, any number of other situations. ALL talk but very little or no "walk".

    It is a DIFFICULT wrestle. But, I'm convinced it's doable as I've seen it and see it in my own life. So....

    What might you do if you're a suburbian of good will??

    A suggestion is GO to a Black Church.

    Understand they are NOT all the same and, indeed, you may feel like a fish out of water, but you WILL find "us" there. And, have the cover of Christianity such that you can stand strong. You'll meet people. Come back another time and you'll meet them again. THAT could lead to a relationship. And, WHO KNOWS what all kinds of hard and marvelous stuff THAT can lead to?

    Also as always, THANK YOU, Ms. Pants. And, this as an aside....

    Benen, whom I like, really should read Markowitz' "All Or Nothing" piece. He's got the "usual" thinking going on re: why we've seen what we've seen and why we're seeing something different now.

    A MUCH better one today to one and all

  17. Blackman - Mo'nin'!

    GREAT point about intentionality. It won't just happen. Thank you! A person could learn a thing or two talking to you as well.

    I just found that another person I've learned TONS from - dmitcha - is now listed as an author at a new blog "Progressive POC." Of course, its now added to my blogroll.

    And yeah, I see that Benen is all into that "he learned his lesson" stuff. I suspect that he'll have to grapple with that one when PBO shows his flexibility depending on the situation. Benen is smart enough that if he keeps watching...he'll get it.

  18. Thank ya, Ms. Pants

    And, since I read your "How To Post Here" post, you won't have to get the rhythm of my syntax to know it's me.

    'Course, you're pretty good at that :-).

    Carry On

  19. Blackman, hi ya. :-)

    Good suggestion re: going to a church. at present i work with (actually under, they are my supervisors, although we used to be all of the same rank) a couple of black women. it's one of those jobs that takes all comers; black, white, young, old, veterans, disabled and up until quite recently about half our crew had served felony time.

    there is a lot of listening and talking going on, to my grateful heart, i somehow landed in this place and time. our business is politics. we gather in a group once a week to compare notes and trade stories and tips.

    and one of those women is an active church-goer. i work on Sundays, but that's an area to keep open. thanks.

    and it's always good to remind people that read here that Ms Smartypants herself is the one who first put the bug in my ear about looking for new employment... little did she or i know that when i went looking in the direction she suggested i found this rich trove of life that i consider prayer-in-action. long story. but aren't they all. :-)

  20. Mo'nin', Ms. Sige

    And, hi ya back at'cha!

    And, GOOD on you as invest, as I suspect many of us are tryin' to do, in a more full American life.

    I'm most curious about your "long story". I'm kinda like that.

    If at any point you'd like to share it with me, I'd be most appreciative to "hear" it.

    Ms. Pants knows how to get in touch with me and I'm fine with her tellin' you how if you'd care to.