Why Black Writers Tend Not to Shout

I've been thinking some about my initial reaction to the NAACP's resolution on racism and the Tea Party. Part of my skepticism has to do with, I think, a general skepticism toward old-line black leadership. I don't think that skepticism is always fair. We tend to lump what Jesse, Al, and the NAACP say and do into the category of spent Civil Rights rhetoric. By the same token, when you see NAACP officials attacking Donovan McNabb for not scrambling more, you just roll your eyes, and greet each successive NAACP claim with more skepticism.


Beyond that, I think there's a generational factor. The Civil Rights movement got a lot of mileage, essentially, out of shaming white people. The point of all the footage of nonviolent protesters being beaten with billy-clubs was to illustrate for the broader country precisely what they were allowing to happen in their name. Much like the latter years of the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement did away with the idea of segregation as a distant abstraction and replaced it with a direct question: Do you endorse the fire-hosing of children, or not? Do you endorse the burning of churches, or not? The Civil Rights movement was a moral appeal to whites, a Shame Initiative (though not solely that), and in it's time it really was a masterful strategy. 

But many of us who've come up post-70s have really come to believe that the Civil Rights leadership has been slow to recognize the limits of shame. For one, without a clearly defined moral high-ground, a Shame Initiative doesn't really work. I don't think the most popular elements of Civil Rights leadership have had a high-ground like that in a long time. 

But more than this, a lot of us simply don't want to carry the burden of being the conscience of white people. Adam Serwer wrote a post some time ago pointing out the disincentives black people have for highlighting racism, among them the desire to not be perceived as a whiner and the obvious fact that racism is not an insurmountable obstacle to individual success. During the Obama campaign, there was a story every other week wondering why Obama generally avoided the "White People's Conscience" role, and why his unwillingness to take that role on didn't affect his poll numbers among blacks. But the fact is that the past forty odd years have provided little reason for black people to believe that such a strategy would be effective. Given that shaming white people has not worked, and that a lot of us are tired of doing it, Obama's approach was actually refreshing. 

Too refreshing.

Here's Jon Chait in an otherwise fine post attacking Fox News for whipping up white resentment:


One of the very few impressive things about conservatives over the last few years is that their opposition to President Obama, though frequently unhinged, misinformed, hypocritical, or outright dishonest, has generally lacked much in the way of racial animus. Obviously you can find some exceptions -- Rush Limbaugh is a notable one, casting health care as "reparations" and trying to make his listeners fear that "in Obama's America," black kids can beat up white kids with impunity. Limbaugh has largely been an exception against the general trend of de-racialized nuttiness on the right.
Leaving aside the matter of giving credit for doing what people always ought to do, I think it's worth examining whether the opposition really has, "generally lacked much in the way of racial animus."

In 2007 Barack Obama began campaigning for the presidency. Since that time, his reception by the American Right has included claims that he is--among other things--a covert Muslim, a welfare thug, a "racist...with a deep-seated hatred of white people or the white culture," and as a president with a policy of landing on the side that "favors the black person."

During the 2008 campaign, one GOP congressman called Obama "uppity", while another referred to him as "that boy." At the Values Voters summit, vendors showed up hawking Obama Waffles, while a California Republican group sent out fake food stamps with Obama surrounded by ribs and chicken. By the end of the campaign, Palin-McCain supporters were repeatedly showing up at rallies publicly announcing that Obama was a Muslim, mocking him as a monkey and openly flaunting the fact that they opposed him because he was black. The monkey jokes continued into Obama's presidency--with South Carolina GOP activist Rusty DePass noting that an escaped gorilla was "probably just one of Michelle Obama's ancestors."

The racial nuttiness has not been limited to Obama. His first Supreme Court nominee, was dismissed as "Miss Affirmative Action 2009." His second nominee has been dismissed for having been influenced by one of the architects of desegregation. Lindsey Graham, a supposedly sensible Republican, attacked health care because it would hurt his state, which is "31 percent African-American population." (Presumably, all those people are poor, while all the white people in South Carolina are not.) When John Lewis walked to the House to vote for health care, he was called a nigger by the mob, and then called a liar for claiming as much. After Tom Tancredo opened the Tea Party convention by calling for literacy tests and asserted that, "people who could not even spell the word 'vote', or say it in English, put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House," the conventions convener lauded Tancredo for giving "a fantastic speech."

Perhaps you could argue that some of these instances aren't about race. Certainly, you could note that many of them are about race plus several other factors. But even granting those points as caveats, what you have is disturbing pattern among the GOP that sometimes floats up to the top. Black writers working in the mainstream, and even at liberal publications, are in a constant dialouge with white audiences. It is utterly useless, and to some extend brand-damaging, to repeatedly call on conservatives to repudiate racism in their midst. What many of us chose to do instead is to try to extend some sympathy, and get into the head of the offending party, in hopes of building a bridge.

I think, for those who are skeptical of the NAACP, something of a turn-about is in order. If you were black what would you think, faced with this pattern? If you were the NAACP what would you to say to this? The downside of the Obama approach, one that I still embrace, is that it tacitly supports Chait's notion that conservative opposition to Obama has "generally lacked much in the way of racial animus." I just don't think the facts bear that conclusion out--at all.

Shouting and resolutions are not my way. I firmly believe that racists, and those who work with the machinery of racism, must ultimately answer for themselves. But without someone shouting, we tend to forget and to elide uncomfortable realities that we have deemed unspeakable. I'm haunted by the words of a black Republican, who was a member of the group that sent out the Obama foodstamps. "This is what keeps African-Americans from joining the Republican Party," she said. "I'm really hurt. I cried for 45 minutes."

The leader of the group responded by asserting her support for Alan Keyes.
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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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