Our Neverending ‘Conversation’ About Race

Our Neverending ‘Conversation’ About Race

Actually, Americans talk about a great deal without having to be nagged to do so.
Daniel Payne

Of all the great seasonal occurrences one can expect from the Left, there is perhaps none so tiresome as its constant and unceasing calls for what it invariably calls a “conversation” about race. The Left already cleaves to the subject of race with an almost maniacal fervency, and so it is entirely unsurprising that they would wish to speak about it whenever possible, if only to gin up the necessary fear and outrage among their political constituency. What makes the demand for such a racial dialogue completely bizarre, of course, is the fact that Americans are already talking about race, and talking about it all the time.

The latest such call for a race-based discussion came from Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose essay “The Case for Reparations,” made waves for both its stylistic elegance—Coates is a markedly fine writer—and its demand for the repayment of centuries of black enslavement and degradation at the hands of American government and civil society. “Reparations would seek to close [the wealth gap],” Coates writes, and would also entail Americans engaging in “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal” on the subject of our shared history. Coates presents a moving and shocking portrait of numerous brutal and unfair experiences suffered by black Americans from slavery to the current era in order to justify such repayment. He concedes, however, that

Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate…we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.

It is entirely possible that the United States may never be able to “fully repay African Americans,” least of all the now-dead slaves that mark so much of  “America’s heritage” and her history, but it is altogether puzzling as to why Coates is wishing for a “serious discussion and debate” in order to “discover much about ourselves.” One is tempted to ask: where the hell has he been? The last six years of America’s political theater, in particular, has been dominated by the topic of race, even more so than it has been for the last sixty: the historical significance our nation’s first black president has served to engender a near-permanent “dialogue” on race from nearly the day he announced his candidacy, and such “dialogue” was simply adding to what was already there. One could easily run off a list of articles, books, movies and television debates from the last six months alone in order to prove the point, but it would be more productive to simply ask Coates point-blank what he means when he voices his desire for a “discussion and debate.” Does he honestly believe that America has not been openly and viscerally grappling with, and discussing, its own sordid and often-brutal racist history for decades at this point?

It is a perfectly reasonable question to ask whether or not constantly talking about race is a detriment to American race relations—if the constant racial discourse might be drawing our attention back towards something we shouldn’t care about at all: namely, race. Whether or not this is the case, it’s simply impossible to realistically claim that the discourse is not taking place. The media, for one, has proven itself capable of broadcasting and scrutinizing every instance of racism it can possibly get its hands on, as illustrated by the recent episodes of Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling. The remarkably creepy Tim Wise has made a decent amount of money as an “antiracist essayist, author and educator,” producing weighty tomes with such insightful titles as “Dear White America.” Countless articles on race and racism are published daily in various Internet outlets and print media, as is demonstrated by the well-circulated and highly popular articles of many authors and journalists, including Ta-Nehisi Coates himself. Hundreds of other examples could be easily produced. Americans discuss race constantly; whether or not this is a healthy thing is immaterial to the plain reality of it. And yet Coates intimates that we need to have a “serious discussion and debate” on racial matters. In this he is echoing similar statements from many other liberal public figures; two high-profile examples include Bill Clinton in 1995 and Eric Holder in 2009, both of who implored Americans to talk about race in baffling ignorance of what was already happening.

So why is the Left in perpetual thrall to the idea of talking about race and racism? Why do so many progressive pundits and politicians insist that we’re not talking about the very thing we’re always talking about? The reason is likely twofold: for one, a constant focus on the matter will serve well to cover up a host of Democratic and progressive failures. The War on Poverty, various social welfare programs and much government societal engineering have all been decisive failures over the last half-century or so, and these failures have disproportionately (and negatively) affected racial minorities. If the Left can steer the political and social discourse away from its own ineptitude, it will surely do so—and demanding that people focus on racism and racial matters both real and imagined is a particularly effective tool for that purpose.

The other reason, however, is more integral to the liberal worldview than mere political maneuvering. Progressivism is marked by a deep-seated and insatiable desire to feel morally superior to, and be set high above, the masses over which progressivism is supposed to exert control: they know what kind of insurance you’re supposed to buy, they know how much you’re supposed to donate to political campaigns, and they certainly know what you’re supposed to be talking about. In his essay, Coates laments the fact that Americans spend the Fourth of July “scarfing down hot dogs…while denying the facts of our heritage.” It’s not at all clear what affirming “the facts of our heritage” would look like in this case; nor does Coates provide any satisfying evidence that the average American is not aware of the details of the terrible history of American slavery and racism; witness, instead, the curious instance of a grown man bitterly kvetching over the discussions taking place at your holiday cookout. Calling for a “discussion and debate” about this matter is not so much a signal of Coates’s desire for reparations as it is a signal of his desire to scold you and make you feel abashed for not talking about the things that he likes to talk about. Thus is Coates elevated and the rest of us deprecated, a moral reckoning which is the desired end result of so much of progressive politics.

There is not really any compelling evidence that a constant “discussion” or “conversation” about race is truly helpful towards ameliorating the terrible fact of American race slavery or its lingering effects. Nevertheless, it remains true that we are already having that discussion; Americans talk about race a great deal without having to be nagged to do so. It would be immensely helpful and appropriate if legions of pundits and politicians stopped inflating their egos by telling us to do something we’re already doing —indeed, if they would “listen carefully” to the discussion we are already having, and at the very least stop imploring us to have it.

Daniel Payne is a senior contributor at The Federalist. He blogs at Trial of the Century. You can follow him on Twitter.

Daniel Payne is an assistant editor for The College Fix, the news magazine of the Student Free Press Association. Daniel's work has appeared in outlets such as National Review Online, Reason, Front Porch Republic, and elsewhere. His personal blog can be found at Trial of the Century. He lives in Virginia.
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