The third week of Black History Month was not exactly a high-water mark in race relations in the United States. Last Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder (who is black) caused a storm of anger when in a speech he called America a “nation of cowards” for refusing to have a frank conversation about race.
The same day, the New York Post ran a political cartoon showing two policemen standing in front of the bullet-riddled body of a chimpanzee. One of the cops is shown holding a smoking gun, while the other looks at him and says, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” The Post’s offices were promptly picketed by a few hundred demonstrators who denounced the paper as racist, led in a chant of “end racism now” by civil rights activist and professional race-baiter Al Sharpton.
This is a long way from the collective struggle for a more perfect union that the U.S. President called for in the widely admired speech on race that he delivered in Philadelphia last March.
Obama began by noting the ongoing hostility and distrust between blacks—who continue to wallow in a culture of defeat that is the legacy of centuries of discrimination—and many immigrants and working-class whites, who don’t feel that they are especially privileged and resent the special treatment given to blacks. Most crucially he stressed that the only way to move forward is for the media to stop treating race as a comic spectacle, for activists to stop using it as a whetstone upon which to grind a partisan axe, and for everyone to stop looking for trouble where there is none.
Too bad no one seems to have listened, starting with Al Sharpton and his constituents.
The suggestion that the Post caricature is racist is a very long toss. To begin with, Obama didn’t even write the stimulus bill, the Democratic members of Congress did. The cartoonist was obviously riffing off the rampage by Travis the chimp in Connecticut earlier in the week, implying that the stimulus package was so bad it could only have been penned by an insane chimpanzee. Yes, depicting blacks as monkeys and apes is a long-standing cliché of racist iconography, but it is worth pointing out that George W. Bush was routinely depicted as having simian features by political cartoonists. Sometimes a primate is just a primate.
As for Eric Holder, it is hard to see what is so controversial about his remarks. After all, he began by noting that considerable progress in race relations had been made in America over the past 40 years, and was pointing out the obvious fact that there is still more work to be done, especially on the social front. His issue was with an America that is more prosperous, more positively race-conscious and yet voluntarily socially segregated.
Sure, calling his countrymen “cowards” for not talking more honestly about race is provocative, but it also happens to be true. Anyone who spends any significant amount of time in the U.S. soon realizes that Americans get seriously squirrelly if you mention, say, the fact that virtually everyone working in menial service-industry jobs there is black. If you raise the problem of welfare traps for single mothers, or suggest that forced integration of schools through bussing might have been counterproductive, normally open and loquacious people stare at their shoes or change the subject.
It isn’t because Americans are racist. Despite what many Canadians think, our neighbours to the south are considerably less prejudiced than the British, and orders of magnitude less so than the French, Italians, Germans, or Dutch, not to mention the Chinese and the Japanese. But what Americans are is extremely race-conscious in a way that makes it impossible for them to have the frank and open conversation that leaders like Obama and Holder are calling for.
As it happens, the real race scandal in America happened two days after the Post cartoon ran: the gossip website TMZ.com released a photograph of pop singer Rihanna taken a few hours after she’d been beaten up by her boyfriend, R&B singer Chris Brown, shortly before they were both supposed to perform at the Grammys. Her face was swollen, her lip split, and she had huge welts on her forehead—all reportedly because she had got angry after Brown received a suggestive text message (a “booty text”) from, depending on whom you ask, either Paris Hilton or Ottawa’s own Keshia Chanté.
What the Chris Brown-Rihanna incident underscores is that the most pressing problem about race in the U.S. today is not insidious discrimination by whites, or the defeatist culture of black victimhood. What is really holding a new generation of blacks back is the ghetto cult of black “authenticity,” familiar to everyone who has seen a hip-hop video in the last decade, that promotes the idea that the ideal woman wears short shorts and waves her ass in the air, while the ideal man cares about little more than Glocks and grillz. It is the same culture that teaches a 19-year-old kid that keepin’ it real means driving a rented Lamborghini and beating up your girlfriend in a fit of jealousy.
This is the real conversation that American blacks need to have, but as everyone who has tried to start it has found out—from Bill Cosby to Chris Rock to Stanley Crouch—it’s a conversation nobody has the slightest interest in pursuing.