Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Who sets the boundaries for debate?

Jonathan Chait has responded to many of those who criticized his feature article about race in the Obama era. In doing so, he stated his most controversial position much more clearly than he did in the original piece. So lets take a look at it.

Here's his summary at the end.
The question of setting fair boundaries for debate may not be as important a problem as racism, but it is a major problem for the left...

There’s no contradiction between grasping the deep and continuing power of white supremacy in American politics and culture while still affording one’s opponents a basic presumption of fairness. One might even call this an important part of the definition of liberalism.
He's basically suggesting that liberals give conservatives the benefit of the doubt on the question of whether or not their arguments are based on racism and that its important to set fair boundaries for the debate about what is/isn't racist.

What's interesting to me is that this is exactly the question that was discussed by Nezua and others at his blog The Unapologetic Mexican in response to the quote I used in my last post by Glenn Greenwald. The backstory is that Greenwald made the statement about white people not wanting to discuss racism because of the unwritten speech rules that result in being called a bigot. In the comments to Nezua's response to that, a poster cited Greenwald doing something that rang dog whistles for her. Greenwald became incensed that she didn't give him the benefit of the doubt. Another poster, Kai, brought it all together:
Look closely, Greenwald is applying prescriptive standards to two separate things: (1) white folks talking about people of color; and (2) people of color talking about white folks.

1. When it comes to white folks talking about POC, Greenwald thinks POC should loosen up their demands on white folks. He says racial dialogue is hindered by "unwritten rules" imposed on white folks by POC, thus characterizing being educated about respectful language as an unfair and arbitrary imposition on white folks.

2. When it comes to POC talking about white folks, the rules shift toward increased sensitivity and an (I believe unconscious) assertion of actual unwritten rules ("assume pure intent", "assume race-neutral interpretation", "don't imply I said or did anything racist"). And if a POC says something hurtful to a white person...based on the POC's lived experience observing the patterns of racial dynamics, this explains why we're not making more social progress.

Pretty neat.

...But this is why Nez is saying that talking about racism openly and honestly is going to be painful; and why it's important for all of us to do our homework and try to learn one another's histories and learn how to speak respectfully before we pick up megaphones, so that we treat a painful subject with the respect that it deserves.
All of that reverberated around what I've called the "diversosphere" (blogs by people of color) for weeks as they identified with this pattern of constantly being asked to give white people the benefit of the doubt when that same benefit was never extended to their own lived experiences.

And so my question to Chait would be: who gets to set those boundaries for a fair debate and who is/isn't afforded the benefit of the doubt? Perhaps the foundation of white privilege has always been what we know to be the answer to that question. And perhaps some of the heat being generated on this topic lately is because people of color aren't buying that one so much anymore.


  1. he's lying.

    he knows - we all know - full well that the game southerners and bigots more generally have come up with since the 70s is "as long as you don't say the word 'nigger', it isn't racist"

    we white folks made up that game JUST SO we could keep being racist, but still have other, so-called "good" white folks, side with us easily.

    and now chait is fully endorsing that game, lock, stock, and barrel.

    1. Its not my concern whether Chait honestly believes what he's written or not.

      But no - we don't "all know." There's lots of white people out there who continue to point at "those racists" as though they didn't buy into this kind of thing. I know - because I used to be one of them. This convo that I'm referring to from back in 2007 was an eye-opener for me...BIG TIME!!!

    2. For me Chait made some points but overall he twisted himself into knots in an attempt to be even-handed. That for me was the major fail of his article. Not that he was endorsing their racism but the pox on both houses routine wore thin after awhile.

      Jon's a good writer who has done excellent work and will do so again. This time he fell flat.

  2. "There’s no contradiction between grasping the deep and continuing power of white supremacy in American politics and culture while still affording one’s opponents a basic presumption of fairness. One might even call this an important part of the definition of liberalism". Chait is out of touch with reality.

  3. what seems to be that this is not a classroom exercise.....this is about people...blk people's lives....

    white folks tend to talk about racism in the 3rd person....for blk folks racism if very much in the 1st person...

    there is a youtube video re: racism....called how to tell someone they are racist...

  4. Mo'nin, Nancy
    Unless I'm misunderstanding him, Brotha Boo, as if on cue, illustrates BEAUTIFULLY your point with his latest piece. I got real annoyed as soon as I saw "Jamelle Bouie "frets" "......
    Then, of course, the comments from his usual crew. Sheba Lo up above runs it down in a very few words.
    So VERY far to go. Still.....


why i've been awol

i'm so sorry to have been awol lately. on sunday i fell and broke my wrist. right now i'm limited to one hand typing - hence the lac...