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Jonah Goldberg / February 20, 2009

A Cowardly Conversation Starter

Hey, black folks, do you know any white folks? Good. OK, I want you to go up to them right now and, as politely as you can, start sharing your most deeply held racial views. Hey, white folks, you’re not off the hook. I want you to go and do likewise with any black people you know.

Don’t want to do that? Really? Well, then, you’re a coward.

That’s the short version of Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech this week celebrating Black History Month.

Holder says we are “a nation of cowards” because we’re unwilling to discuss race to his satisfaction. Some might say that’s an ironic diagnosis given that Holder is the first black attorney general, appointed by the first black president of the United States.

Nonetheless, Holder thinks the answer to our racial problems is for more people of different colors to talk about how race defines them. He suggests using the “artificial device” of Black History Month “to generate discussion that should come more naturally” but doesn’t.

Well, in the spirit of full and frank discussion, let me say I have some problems with Holder’s analysis.

The first thing worth pointing out is that Holder is wrong. America talks about race incessantly, in classrooms, lecture halls, movies, op-ed pages, books, magazines, talk shows, just about every third PBS documentary by my count, blogs, diversity training sessions and, yes, even mandatory Black History Month events.

In fairness, Holder seems vaguely aware of this. The hitch is that he thinks this isn’t nearly enough racial argy-bargy. We’ve got to work the balm of racial dialogue deep into muscle and sinew of the body politic.

My biggest objection to Holder’s speech is that it reveals how enthralled to a cliché he is. Look, despite the bold tone of his remarks, this is just a terribly hackneyed idea. People have been calling for a national dialogue for years. Twelve years ago, Bill Clinton even proclaimed a whole year would be dedicated to a national conversation on race.

Assuming Holder is serious, who says more talk would make things better? Is there some social science to back up this talking point posing as wisdom? Have there been studies showing that if you force blacks and whites to talk endlessly about race, race relations improve? If so, is the research any good? Or is this liberal conventional wisdom masquerading as something else?

Perhaps Holder envisions a national conversation where the whole country becomes a giant School of Athens, with blacks as Socrates and whites as Plato, eagerly taking instruction on the finer points of racial consciousness. The image that comes to my mind is different. I see Michael Scott, the hyper-vapid boss from NBC’s “The Office,” hectoring Stanley and Darryl – the show’s two black characters – to make race an issue when it shouldn’t be.

Americans are very good at hearing ideological appeals, but we’re almost tone-deaf when it comes to clichés. That’s why liberals hide so much of their agenda inside them. Say “diversity makes us stronger” a billion times and you’ll come to believe it uncritically, too.

Usually, when I hear a liberal call for a national conversation on race, I translate it as: “People who disagree with me need to be instructed why they are wrong.” Indeed, in a sense it’s no wonder America is a nation of cowards when it comes to race, because so many of us are terrified of being called racist the moment we step out of line with liberal orthodoxy.

For example, when Clinton held one of his famous town hall discussions, he invited Abigail Thernstrom, a polite, sophisticated scholar of racial issues and champion of race-neutrality, to participate in a frank conversation about race. But the moment she expressed an honest objection to racial quotas, Clinton browbeat her as some kind of crypto-racist idiot.

We see something similar in how Holder envisions the latest iteration of a national palaver on race. He says of the debate over affirmative action (or what blogger Paul Mirengoff calls “a coward’s name for race-based preferences”) that, “This debate can, and should, be nuanced, principled and spirited. But the conversation we now engage in as a nation on this and other racial subjects is too often simplistic and left to those on the extremes, who are not hesitant to use these issues to advance nothing more than their own narrow self-interest.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps calling views you disagree with “extreme” and accusing those who hold them of having dishonorable motives is just a clever way of saying that you don’t want an “honest conversation” at all.

© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc. 

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