Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Continued Need for Expanded Racial Discourse

Since the election of Barack Obama into this nation's highest office, there has been widespread praise for how far the United States of America has come in regard to race relations. After all, not even half a century ago, our black brothers and sisters were fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds in order to achieve equality. It still pains us to watch the old footage of black members of society being beaten, attacked by police dogs, and sprayed with fire hoses. These images, along with the images of peaceful protests singing "We Shall Overcome" cannot help but remind us not only of how far we have come, but of the power of a determined people to create social change.

While a black man ascending into the office of President indicates measured progress for race relations, it does not automatically mean that issues of race and racism are no longer relevant or worth discussing. Isolated incidents of achievement are not always indicative of widespread societal progress. One only needs to turn back the clock a mere three and a half years and remember the scenes that played out in New Orleans duirng Hurricane Katrina for a reminder of why race issues should continue to be discussed in the twenty-first century.

Attorney General Eric Holder recently gave a speech in honor of Black History Month and used the opportunity to encourage people to have an open dialogue about race. Holder said that we are "essentially a nation of cowards" in our collective failure of engaging in meaningful discussions on race related issues. Holder continued:

Our history has demonstrated that the vast majority of Americans are uncomfortable with, and would like to not have to deal with, racial matters and that is why those, black or white, elected or self-appointed, who promise relief in easy, quick solutions, no matter how divisive, are embraced. We are then free to retreat to our race protected cocoons where much is comfortable and where progress is not really made. If we allow this attitude to persist in the face of the most significant demographic changes that this nation has ever confronted-and remember, there will be no majority race in America in about fifty years-the coming diversity that could be such a powerful, positive force will, instead, become a reason for stagnation and polarization.

With President Obama now in office we see people retreating into their "race protected cocoons". Racial disparity and racial inequality have not just magically disappeared, but rather it is the chance for meaningful discourse which has fallen into old patterns and continues to fade into the background. What a fantastic opportunity this country currently has to speak to each other about issues of race now that we have witnessed the election of our first black President. What follows should not be the assumption that all has been overcome, but rather a dialogue on how we can continue to move forward. Communication and emerging from our protected cocoons is the only way that we can effectively continue this all important progression on these issues.

Recently, the much publicized editorial cartoon printed by The New York Post, touched off a firestorm of criticism. The cartoon (linked to above) shows two white police officers standing over a bullet-ridden and bloodied chimp with their guns smoking. One officer is saying to the other: "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill". Rev. Al Sharpton was quick to criticize the cartoon as racist for the implication that the dead chimpanzee could be interpreted to be President Obama. The Post initially issued a statement defending the cartoon and attacking "those in the media and in public life who have had differences with the Post in the past". "To them," the statement read, "no apology is due." This led to continued demonstrations outside the Post's offices and concluded with an apology from Rupert Murdoch, CEO of NewsCorp.

This incident got a lot of sensational coverage in the media and set off debates between pundits who argued whether or not the cartoon was racist. Whether the chimpanzee was initially intended to represent Obama is not necessarily the central issue. A more productive discussion would have stretched beyond the surface and could have examined the history of likening African-Americans to monkeys and chimpanzees. Now, with Murdoch's apology and the sensational aspect of this story fading, we will once again shelve the discussion of this issue until the next controversy erupts. This pattern, one we have seen for years on the issue of race, is not a recipe for progress, but like Eric Holder says, a reason for stagnation.

While the recent controversy over the Post's editorial cartoon shows us an example of the continued failure of discussing race in a meaningful way, there are still some who feel that it is appropriate to engage in behavior that directly works against progress. Jim Schifrin is the publisher of The Whistleblower (an internet based alternative "news" source for Cincinnati) and has come under fire recently for blatantly racist language and images as well as assassination jokes that he has posted. As you can read in other stories posted at The Cincinnati Beacon, many area politicians have repudiated this racist language.

In the January 17th edition of The Whistleblower Schifrin made mention of sharing Obama jokes with Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters:

Q: What do Abe Lincoln, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr. and Obama have in common? A: Nothing, yet!

Q: What's the difference between Sarah Palin naked and Michelle Obama naked?
A: Playboy and National Geographic!

BREAKING NEWS: “Hail to the Chief” is being replaced with the theme song from "The Jefferson's"!

Finally, everybody—just relax. When was the last time you saw an black guy keep
a job for four years?

In the February 20th edition of The Whistleblower Schifrin has Obama's face pasted over the face of a monkey and also published this result of a "limerick competition":

The best part of dead Presidents' Day
Is that at some point this one will also be that way.
I don't wish him bad luck
(Though I really don't give a good ... uh ... "darn")
Just call me a nasty old Republican ofay!

and in the February 21st edition of The Whistleblower, Schifrin posted a photo that likens Michelle Obama to a monkey. It is racist actions like these that run directly contrary to the kind of progress that Eric Holder talks about in his speech. There is nothing about the publication of such images and so-called jokes that allow us to have an intelligent and productive conversation about serious race related issues. The fact that there are still Jim Schifrin's of the world out there should indicate not only that racism is still alive and well, but that we need to take every opportunity that we are given to have intellectual discussions that will actual move this country forward instead of backward. After all, as Eric Holder said:

As I indicated before, the artificial device that is Black History month is a perfect vehicle for the beginnings of such a dialogue. And so I urge all of you to use the opportunity of this month to talk with your friends and co-workers on the other side of the divide about racial matters. In this way we can hasten the day when we truly become one America.

Perhaps Jim Schifrin would like to take Eric Holder's challenge and discuss (in interview format) his use of assassination jokes, racist jokes, and likening monkeys to the Obamas. (If he is interested in such an interview, he should let me know.) After all, lobbing racist insults is an easy thing to do, but tackling these issues in a meaningful manner is another matter entirely.

Though we have made great strides with race, it is evident by the examples that I have listed above, that we still have a long way to come. As Eric Holder states in his speech, "to respect one another, we must have a basic understanding of each other" . Communication and dialogue is the only way that we can begin to understand each other and understand the full history of black America. "The history of black America and the history of this nation are inextricably tied to each other", Holder states, and until we start to talk with each other and understand this, we will see more stagnation and less progression.

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trey said...

Chris, with all due respect I find it highly disingenuous when the left calls for "expanded racial discourse". As a conservative wrote, what they really mean is that whites should prostrate themselves before blacks and beg forgiveness. I'm very interested in this subject and believe I can somewhat effectively present some of the stronger right-wing perspectives on the topic. But surprise, surprise, I find my comments are not welcome by left-wing bloggers. My last two comments on the Schifrin controversy at the Dean's site were not published (censored) even though a number of posters specifically asked me to speak on the subject and my comments contained no coarse language (it was obviously censored for ideological reasons). (I am not overly mad at the Dean because I realize its probably not easy to resist the urge to not publish positions in which you strongly disagree on a site you are paying for.) But I think we should be honest here and admit that there are some strong, well-reasoned right-wing arguments that are completely taboo to those folks calling for a so-called "open dialogue on race".

Chris Johnson said...

Thanks for stopping by trey!

I cannot speak to the moderating of comments on The Beacon's website. I have zero control in approving comments that get posted on the site and if you feel that your views are being unfairly modified or censored then that is an issue between you and the Dean.

I think my piece makes clear that I endorse an expanded dialouge on race related issues and feel that we cannot progress without understanding and we can not understand without communication.

I also believe that the items that Jim Schifrin has posted work directly against progressing society to a greater level of understanding and tolerance. His comparing the Obamas to monkeys, posting racist jokes, and posting jokes about assassination appeal to some of the worst elements of society and do not have the effect of achieving positive results in discussion of matters that revolve around race.

trey said...

Glad to stop by- but you don't know how hard it is for someone over a certain age to navigate what must appear to the younger set as the easiest of computer operations to get that comment above posted. But I fought through the maze and posted.

But as to Schifrin and working toward progressing society through better race relations: I don't think thats his aim. I don't want to defend the guy too much because I don't know his stuff very well and do find his site sometimes overly nasty. But maybe he is just aiming to describe reality as best he sees it. Thats a worthwhile goal too. And satire is an effective way to speak about things most everybody probably thinks about but can't say in polite society. So of three of the jokes you mentioned above (the Hail to the Chief-Jeffersons joke is just a goofy joke so I'll ignore it)I rate 1.)the Michelle-Nat Geographic joke over the line. 2.)the Obama assasination joke as kinda clever because it does what many good jokes do :allows the audience to fill in the cynical punch line. and 3.) "the black guy keep a job for four years" joke in my opinion is excellent. It takes a "reality" that most people probably have observed (and which is probably backed by statistical data) but aren't allowed to speak on and expresses it in a whimsical way. (Anyway thats my comedy critique for the day.)

And moving to the topic of having an open dialogue about race: I had this thought while recently watching some of Dayton PBS's rebroadcast of 'Eyes on the Prize' documentary (which you sort of allude to in your 'it still pains us to watch the old footage of black members of society being beaten' comment above): is it a fair depiction of reality to show some of this brutal footage (showing white people in an unflattering light) and not ever in a million years have the nerve to produce a documentary on the overwhelmingly lopsided nature of interracial crime in contemporary America? (I looked up data on this subject at the government crime statistics site and they showed 17.7% of stranger murders being black-on-white and 4.5% being white-on-black.) I enjoy PBS, learn a lot watching it, regard it as one of the more authoritative voices on what is the current acceptable positions on a whole range of topics and would consider it a natural forum for the "open dialogue" but, as my example above shows, doubt it could look very closely at the things people aren't supposed to talk about.

trey said...

Also, let me add on. When I speak on crime statistics and such, I'm not making any judgments if the crime is justified or not as some kind of natural result of overall societal unfairness but merely pointing it out because when I surf through some of the left-leaning websites like the Dean's, I often find articulate, seemingly well-educated commenters apparently oblivious to this "reality".