Against the 'Conversation on Race'

More on Brad Paisley and LL Cool J's "Accidental Racist"

LL Cool J makes it:

"Martin Luther King says that darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can," LL Cool J said. "Hate can't drive out hate, only love can. So what we're talking about is compassion...."

"I'm not advising anyone to truly forget slavery, but what I'm saying is forget the slavery mentality," LL Cool J said. "Forget the bitterness. Don't get bitter, get better."

Brad Paisley backs him up:

"Let's not be victims of things that happened so long ago," Paisley said.

One of the problems with the idea that America needs a "Conversation On Race" is that it presumes that "America" has something intelligent to say about race. All you need do is look at how American history is taught in this country to realize that that is basically impossible. 

I have had conversations with very well-educated people who, with a straight face, have told me that there are Black Confederates. If you ask a very well educated person how the GI Bill exacerbated the wealth gap, or how New Deal housing policy helped create the ghetto they very likely will not know. And they do not know, not because they are ignorant, stupid, or immoral, they do not know because they are part of country that has decided that "not knowing" is in its interest. There's no room for any sort of serious conversation when the basic facts of history are not accessible. It would be like me demanding a conversation on Vichy France--en Français.

So we retreat to mushy, moist talk about who "feelings," "intentions," "good people" and "loving fathers." The great Jay Smooth once said that we need to move from a "what you are" conversation ("you are a racist") to a "what you are doing" conversation. Unfortunately this presumes a groundwork of honesty and good faith. No such good faith exists because we are ignorant, and deep down inside, we know it and are ashamed of it.

Even within those confines, it did not have to be this way. Paisley could have reached out and had a conversation with an artist who might actually challenge his worldview. He could have engaged Mos Def and walked through Brooklyn. He might have engaged Common, walked the South Side and read about the forces that made it so. He might have talked to Kendrick Lamar and walked through Compton. He could have visited the jails and thought about why they are heaving with black men, and wondered what connections that heaving has with the past.

But acts would require a mind interested in something more than being told what it already knows. It would require an artist doing his job and exploring. It would require truly engaging a community, instead of haughtily lecturing it on how, precisely, it should react to great pain. It would require something more than mere reification. It would require something more than absolution. It would require talking to people who may not like you. It would require the rarest of things in this space where everyone wants to write, but no one wants to read--a truly curious mind.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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