Some Interesting Advice

Just got this note over the intertubes-maily doodad:

Dear TNC,

I meant to write this a while back so it's not as topical now, but I just wanted to offer you a very quick piece of advice. You have a beautiful (writing) voice and and interesting mind; don't get dragged in every time somebody writes you saying, "some hick say XYZ about black people, please respond." Your commentary on race issues is, of course, interesting and always well thought out. But some of the shit you respond to deserves neither your attention nor that of your readers. Just my two cents.

This is always such a tough one, and I highlight this note because it mirrors some things I've been turning over in my head. A solid half of my e-mail consists of links from my readers cataloging the dumb shit people say about black people--often by "serious" people. Do you respond? Or do you ignore?

First, the groundwork. I think that many people (I won't say most) who make money doing opinion journalism aren't very curious. Their interest isn't in expanding their view of the world, or refining their analysis. Their interested in scoring points, and the only relevant information is the kind that helps them score more points. It's understandable--nuance won't get you on Hannity, or turn you into Keith Olbermann for that matter. You get paid to score points, and rev up your side.

This is a temptation of the trade--and it's one I struggle with mightily. I try not to take TV and radio gigs if I don't know what I'm talking about. I try not to blog too much about areas where my understanding is thin. But I get caught out there sometimes. And I'm sure some missive I've authored, at some point, has been sent to some other blogger as an example of liberal "dumb shit."

Second, the perils of race-related opinion-journalism--particularly the sort that features no original reporting--are compounded by the demographics of this country.  Black people are the most segregated minority in America.  The people who interpret black people for the world are, in the main, white, and thus not likely to have spent much time in the company of their charges.

More than that, even if you're black, the nature of race in America is so complicated and so twisting, that being black isn't really enough. Writing about race requires walking and chewing gum, and yet often it's left in the hands of people who aren't particularly interested in either--be they black or white.

And then there's one final problem--people aren't convinced that black people are human. That's a pretty blanket accusation, but I think it bears out pretty well. I think it explains why the pathologies of poverty are so easily transformed into pathologies of blackness. I think it's why people actually believed that a handsome, Ivy-educated lawyer from the South Side of Chicago, whose married to a black woman, wouldn't be "black enough" for African-Americans. I think it's why people think Bill Cosby is saying something that's never heard in black communities. I think it explains why George Will believes that a guy who wrote a book subtitled "Why We Are Excited By Obama And Why He Can't Win," is nonetheless "America's foremost black intellectual."


In these sorts of intellectual debates, black people aren't people, as much as they are symbol of American sin. We are not discussing a group of loosely connected human beings who drink, eat, shit, piss, fuck, kill, fight, laugh and love. We're discussing a thing--a club to inveigh against liberalism gone amock, a sword to inveigh against the backwardness of conservatives, a cudgel to beat on poor people everywhere.

My job is to report and write. But so much of what informs my view of race is shaped by the in between. I enjoy debating race, just like anyone else. But if you want to know about Negroes, don't read this blog. Come to 128th and Second on any given Saturday in the Fall. That's where my son plays little league football, and where you can find blackness laid out in all its requisite splendor. It's all out there--the single mothers, the Puerto-Ricans, the Jamaicans, the kids on scholarship at Dalton, the Muslim fathers fasting for Ramadan, the boys one step from the corner. One big mass of conflicted and contradictory humanity.

Our problem is this--we have pundits who are geniuses at interpreting numbers, but rank failures at interpreting people. This is how someone looks at you with a straight face and argues that black men will use gay marriage to escape the altar. It's a notion cultivated by a pundit who's stared at the numbers for so long that they've started confusing them with people.

Man listen: Bring me all the stats you can muster. Bring me your illegitimacy rates, your marriage rates, your crime stats. Bring me your achievement gaps, your IQ chasms, your precisely weighted data. I'll read it all with you and weep. But  if you're scared to be amongst the community you deign to interpret, I have only a pound and prayer to offer you. This isn't exclusive to black people. This goes for "intellectuals" who analyze Iraq from the comforts of Washington think tanks, yet wouldn't recognize a word of Arabic and haven't spent more than a few days in the Middle-East.

The fear of people is real, and while it's a barrier to saying anything original, it's not a barrier to having a career explaining them. Thus, the dumb shit flourishes. So what do we do with the resulting flood of stupid? Do we let it stand? Do we ruthlessly attack every single instance of intellectual charlatanism? Or do we just move on to the new Star Trek movie and Brett Favre?