'The Conversation on Race,' Cont.

I think the fact that we don't really have the implements to carry out this much ballyhoed conversation were really brought home by Jim Webb's piece "The Myth Of White Privilege" which Sara talked about yesterday. The title, itself, is a device meant to drive conservatives to cheering, liberals to howling, and the whole of them all to page-clicking and reading, In short, it proceeds not from any desire to conversate, as we say, but to provoke strong emotion, and hopefully, page-views. I don't know that I blame the Journal for this. I hate unthinking equivalence, but its quite clear to me that liberals and conservatives both have prominent camps that enjoy yelling. 


But its still worth teasing out the intentions and the argument. The questions, themselves, are serious and worthy ones: What is "white privilege" to those who are white and poor, seemingly in perpetuity? Does Affirmative Action exist to promote diversity or historical redress? Is it both? If so, why? Who should be on the receiving end of such redress? Do immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa count? How do Native Americans fit in? What does it mean to have Affirmative Action for white women, many of whom will in turn marry white men?

How do we, specifically, define Affirmative Action? Is it any effort at diversity by anyone, anywhere? Do the questions I listed change depending on the venue? When I was hired, surely the Atlantic relished the idea of adding an African-American to their masthead. Was that Affirmative Action? If so, was it different than what happens, say, at Harvard? Was it bad?

How much does Affirmative Action actually affect white workers? How much discrimination are they actually suffering? In what spheres is this discrimination most prevalent? Are poor whites actually losing out to "people of color?" Do we have any stats on how many people have been affected by Affirmative Action? How broad is its impact?

I'm not really interested in answering any of these questions here and now, so much as I'm interested in asserting their validity, and asserting that they will always be ill-served by an 800 word op-ed with an inflammatory title. My sense is that there are answers to all of these queries. But I don't think we much care to have them. Jim Webb's piece, most regrettably, followed in the tradition of Henry Louis Gates' column on reparations, in that it is a sign post, a line of demarcation. An exclamation point, as opposed to a question mark.

The "conversation around race" is, itself, a kind of tribalism, wherein you look for ways to justify--instead of interrogate--your most elemental feelings.
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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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