It's the Racism, Stupid

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National Review's Victor Davis Hanson takes on the president's comments with predictable results. Here Hansen counters The Talk that African-American parents give their children about the police with his own version of The Talk:

Attorney General Eric Holder earlier gave an address to the NAACP on the Zimmerman trial. His oration was likewise not aimed at binding wounds. Apparently he wanted to remind his anguished audience that because of the acquittal of Zimmerman, there still is not racial justice in America.

Holder noted in lamentation that he had to repeat to his own son the lecture that his father long ago gave him. The sermon was about the dangers of police stereotyping of young black males. Apparently, Holder believes that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Yet I fear that for every lecture of the sort that Holder is forced to give his son, millions of non-African-Americans are offering their own versions of ensuring safety to their progeny.

In my case, the sermon -- aside from constant reminders to judge a man on his merits, not on his class or race -- was very precise.

First, let me say that my father was a lifelong Democrat. He had helped to establish a local junior college aimed at providing vocational education for at-risk minorities, and as a hands-on administrator he found himself on some occasions in a physical altercation with a disaffected student. In middle age, he and my mother once were parking their car on a visit to San Francisco when they were suddenly surrounded by several African-American teens. When confronted with their demands, he offered to give the thieves all his cash if they would leave him and my mother alone. Thankfully they took his cash and left.

I think that experience -- and others -- is why he once advised me, "When you go to San Francisco, be careful if a group of black youths approaches you." Note what he did not say to me. He did not employ language like "typical black person." He did not advise extra caution about black women, the elderly, or the very young -- or about young Asian Punjabi, or Native American males. In other words, the advice was not about race per se, but instead about the tendency of males of one particular age and race to commit an inordinate amount of violent crime.

It was after some first-hand episodes with young African-American males that I offered a similar lecture to my own son. The advice was born out of experience rather than subjective stereotyping. When I was a graduate student living in East Palo Alto, two adult black males once tried to break through the door of my apartment -- while I was in it. On a second occasion, four black males attempted to steal my bicycle -- while I was on it. I could cite three more examples that more or less conform to the same apprehensions once expressed by a younger Jesse Jackson. Regrettably, I expect that my son already has his own warnings prepared to pass on to his own future children.

I really, really hope not. By Hanson's own admission this "Talk" has done very little to protect him, and he implies that it didn't help his father either. That is not surprising given that this is the kind of advice which betrays a greater interest in maintaining one's worldview than in maintaining one's safety.

Let us be direct -- in any other context we would automatically recognize this "talk" as stupid advice. If I were to tell you that I only employ Asian-Americans to do my taxes because "Asian-Americans do better on the Math SAT," you would not simply question my sensitivity, but my mental faculties. That is because you would understand that in making an individual decision, employing an ancestral class of millions is not very intelligent. Moreover, were I to tell you I wanted my son to marry a Jewish woman because "Jews are really successful," you would understand that statement for the stupidity which it is.

It would not be acceptable for me to make such suggestions (to say nothing of policy) in an enlightened society -- not simply because they are "impolite" but because they betray a rote, incurious and addled intellect. There is no difference between my argument above and the notion that black boys should be avoided because they are overrepresented in the violent crime stats. But one of the effects of racism is its tendency to justify stupidity. 

Those of who have spent much of our lives living in relatively high crime neighborhoods grasp this particular stupidity immediately. We have a great many strategies which we employ to try to protect ourselves and our children. We tell them to watch who they are walking with, to not go to neighborhoods where they don't know anyone, that when a crowd runs toward a fight they should go the other way, to avoid blocks with busted street-lights, to keep their heads up while walking, to not daydream and to be aware of their surroundings.

When you start getting down to particular neighborhoods the advice gets even more specific -- don't cut through the woods to get to school, stay away from Jermaine Wilks, don't got to Mondawmin on the first hot day of the year, etc. There is a great scene in the film The Interruptors when one of the anti-violence workers notes that when she sees a bunch of people in a place, and then they all suddenly clear out, she knows something is coming down. My point is that parents who regularly have to cope with violent crime understand the advantages of good, solid intelligence. They know that saying '"stay away from black kids" is the equivalent of looking at 9/11, shrugging one's shoulders and saying, "It was them Muslims." 

It should come as no surprise that Victor Davis Hanson's generational advice has met with mixed results. But when you are more interested in a kind of bigoted nationalism than your actual safety, this is what happens. 

These two strands -- stupidity and racism -- are inseparable. The pairing seem to find a home at National Review with some regularity. It's been a little over a year since the magazine cut ties with self-described racist John Derbyshire for basically writing the same thing that Victor Davis Hanson writes here. Hanson couldn't even be bothered to come up with anything new. He just ripped off Derbyshire. His editors could evidently care less. A few days later the magazine cut ties with Robert Weissberg for offering pro tips to white nationalists. I'm not quite sure why they bothered with the kabuki. You are what your record says you are and at some point one must conclude that these are not one-offs, that the magazine which once blamed the Birmingham bombing on "a crazed Negro," is dealing with something more systemic, something bone-deep.

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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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