'The Conversation on Race'

Shirley Sherrod, as presented last Monday, was a woman robbed of history. The immediate history of her comments were removed, as anyone can see from the tape. But the broader history--the murder of her father by the Klan, her subsequent devotion to a war against domestic terrorists inaugurated by her rifle-toting mother, the sad years of unpunished murder of black people in the South, and the accompanying pillage of black farmland--was also necessarily excised. What you saw last week was rather profound--like a watching tribunal in which the zeal to render a verdict was only matched by the zeal to ignore all evidence.


It's rather shocking when you consider the facts. The NAACP is the oldest organizational champion of integration in existence today, and maybe the greatest in American history. Founded in 1909, as an integrated group with integrated leadership, the NAACP has historically not just suffered at the hands of racists, but also at the hands of black nationalists and separatists. No less then the W.E.B. Du Bois parted with the group, in part, because of its steadfast commitment to integration. In 1995, the NAACP, likely much to their peril, refused to support the Million Man March because of its disagreements with Louis Farrakhan. 

With that backdrop, the likelihood of an Obama official with roots in the Civil Rights Movement, coming to NAACP meeting to preach racism should have set off alarm bells, immediately. (Specifically for the NAACP itself.) The scenario only becomes likely if you either excise history--or if those who seek to excise history shake your confidence. The former describes Breitbart's legions. The latter describes the NAACP. 

I keep hearing people bantering about this notion of a national conversation on race, and I have finally figured out why it rankles so. This is a country where any variant of the phrase "slavery caused the Civil War" is still considered controversial, and where respectable intellectuals believe the NAACP and the Tea Party movement are two sides of the same coin. The NAACP has repeatedly cited "elements of the Tea Party" for racism, and yet the argument is just as repeatedly rendered as "the NAACP says the Tea Party is racist."

Expecting an American conversation on race in this country, is like expecting financial advice from someone who prefers to not check their bank balance. It's not that the answers, themselves, are pre-ordained, its that we are more interested in  answers than questions, in verdicts than evidence. Even now, there are people who insist--in spite of the actual video--that the NAACP audience is actually cheering for Sherrod to not help the white farmer.

Put bluntly, this is a country too ignorant of itself to grapple with race in any serious way. The very nomenclature--"conversation on race"--betrays the unseriousness of the thing by communicating the sense that race can be boxed from the broader American narrative, that you can somehow talk about Thomas Jefferson without Sally Hemmings; that you can discuss Andrew Jackson without discussing his betrayal of the black artillerymen who fought at the Battle of New Orleans; that you can discuss the suffrage without Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells or Frederick Douglass; that you can discuss temperance without understanding the support of the Klan; that you can discuss the path to statehood in Florida without discussing Fort Gadsen; that you can talk Texas without understanding cotton, and so on.

It's not so much that we don't know--it's that we aspire to not know. The ignorance of the African-American thread in the broader American quilt--the essential nature of that thread--is willful, and the greatest evidence that the spirit of white supremacy walks with us. There was a lot of self-congratulation around the justice done on Shirley Sherrod. It's premature. The thing will happen again. Race isn't a "distraction" from Obama's agenda--it's the compromised, unsure ground upon which this country walks everyday. It is the monster, and it will not be evaded writing Shirley Sherrod off to the machinations of the 24-hour news cycle.

Talk is overrated. There can be no talk with people who've conditioned themselves out of listening. This is the country we've made. This is the country we deserve.
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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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