The look of a racial pseudo-discussion!


When experts pretend to discuss: What do pseudo-discussions look like?

Consider the pseudo-discussion of the term “Uncle Tom” on Don Lemon’s CNN program last night.

Last weekend, Rep. Bennie Thompson dropped the UT-bomb on Clarence Thomas. He then defended his use of the term to CNN’s Dana Bash, who didn't seem to know how to question him about it.

(Basic question: Are such insults OK? As always, opinions may differ.)

Was it OK to drop that bomb? Last night, Professor Ogletree offered this analysis:
OGLETREE (4/30/14): I'm a good friend of Bennie Thompson. I've known him, and he's represented Mississippi very well. And the whole idea is that this is a black-on-black discussion. And I have heard that word, "Uncle Tom," from the time I was growing up as a kid until very recently. And so it's a common use of language to, in a sense, downgrade somebody who's not embracing the race.

And I think that people have to figure out what can you say, what can you not say? And I'm really, really worried that this is going to be a discussion about getting rid of words.
Huh? That was as clear as an unrung bell. Lemon tried it again:
LEMON (continuing directly): Is it OK for the congressman— He said, "I called him Uncle Tom," and he goes, "I'm black." Is that OK?

OGLETREE: I don't think it's because he's black it's OK. But what I'm saying is "Uncle Tom" is a word—Uncle Tom is real, right? And the question is, can people use that word? If they do, they don't use it as openly as they should. But I think that they should make it clear that there's a difference between them and some other people. I think that makes a lot of difference the way we have a discussion about what does Uncle Tom actually mean?

We can’t find tape of last night’s program. But that’s pretty much what we heard when we watched the show—and that is an incoherent mess, as anyone can see.

That’s also a pseudo-discussion.

If professors are going to talk that way, why do we even have them? Lemon didn’t fare much better when he turned to Bomani Jones:
LEMON (continuing directly): Let's talk more about the comments from Congressman Thompson, Bomani Jones. I mean, is it ever acceptable for a U.S. congressman to call a black Supreme Court justice an Uncle Tom?

JONES: Well, the thing about Uncle Tom that I find interesting is we have a discussion about whether or not it's an appropriate term. And it seems as though to me, and I could be mistaken, I don't hear the outcry about calling someone an Uncle Tom coming primarily from black people. I find it seems a lot of white people find it to be offensive. And if you were being called an Uncle Tom, it is offensive, but I don't think that that's a racist term that you happen to use.

I do think if you call somebody an Uncle Tom, you better absolutely be correct, because if you're not, well, you know how that goes.
According to Jones, a lot of white people find the term offensive. And it actually is offensive! It just isn’t racist!

Mark O’Mara then offered this thought: If calling someone an Uncle Tom generates a discussion of race on TV, then “I think that’s what’s most important. I really do.”

After that, Lemon made a final try with Michaela Angela Davis:
LEMON: I understand what you're saying. But those words, words like “Uncle Tom” and the N-word, end the conversation. Those are words as weapons, and it's hard to move beyond those words, Michaela Davis, once someone has called you that—

DAVIS: Yes, but—but this is a messy situation, and we have to be brave enough to make mistakes and say the wrong words.

LEMON: Right.

DAVIS: How long have we been hearing the other narrative? We're having all these counter narratives, and we have to be brave to make the mistake, hear the words, dissect them, put them in context and then move on.

But I think we have to be really clear where we are in history, right? So this is the first time for a lot of time—for a long time that people are actually able to speak publicly, and then there's this big public discourse around it.

Democracy is messy. Slavery was messy. Civil rights was messy and complicated and diabolical. So how are we supposed to have polite conversations about crimes against humanity that have colored our entire civilization? Right?

So I think we need to give ourselves some room to make mistakes and say the things that are touch points so we can unpack them and give each other some education. If we're tip-toeing around words, we're not going to get through the mess. Democracy is a messy process. And we just have to not be cowards around whether a word is going to hurt someone. And we need to educate what that word feels like when you yield it like a weapon, or do you just not know?

LEMON: Uh-huh. All right. Stay with me, everyone. We're answering your questions when we come right back.
Stay with that? Why bother?

Davis at least seemed to answer the question—or something. She seemed to say that it was OK to make mistakes in difficult discussions. We shouldn’t be cowards about hurting people!

Except for Lemon himself, no one was willing to say or suggest that a discussion almost surely can’t be built around insults. Nor was Lemon willing to push. For example, he wasn’t willing to tell Ogletree that his second jumble of words made no apparent sense.

For ourselves, we often think that Ogletree is a complete waste of time. Where do we get these professors?

Can we explain what happened here? Thompson called Thomas an Uncle Tom. For tribal reasons, none of these experts was willing to say that this might have been unwise, imperfect, perhaps unhelpful or even potentially wrong.

Such possibilities aren’t permitted! As a result, the various experts floundered about, serving giant bowls of word salad. When our experts stage such discussions, why do we bother to have them?

Other discussions were equally useless. At one point, Davis mockingly said that she hasn’t heard the term “inner city” since 1976.

That’s strange! According to Nexis, the term appeared in the New York Times 166 times last year alone (in calendar year 2013).

Maybe Lemon should go back to searching for that missing airplane. Unless they’re beating up on the nation’s most clownish men, this guild is essentially useless.

Go ahead—read those statements again. You’re sampling a pseudo-discussion!


  1. There is no upside for the professor to discuss this clearly. It is not a question he wants to answer and that is why his response is a non-answer. It isn't because he is a professor. It is because he doesn't want to talk about racial issues like that in public.

    Eugene Robinson in his book Disintegration -- the Splintering of Black America, contends that the idea of racial unity (presenting a united front to white America by refusing to be critical of other African Americans in public) is slowly disappearing with the emergence of several large factions within Black American with distinct and different interests. He suggests that the distaste or hesitance many African Americans feel about disagreeing with each other and criticizing each other may be weakening. A black Congressman calling a black Supreme Court Justice a name like Uncle Tom, previously reserved for conversations outside of white hearing, supports his view that old norms are changing. The reluctance of these interview subjects to agree that the criticism is OK reflects the discomfort the change is bringing, perhaps stronger for those who are older or more embedded in previous expectations.

    This is the heart of the conflict African Americans felt over whether to support OJ unquestioningly or stand up for Nicole Brown against domestic abuse. Also, whether to support Anita Clark's complaints against Clarence Thomas (and thereby address sexual harrassment concerns) or stick with Clarence Thomas because he would provide access to the court for an underrepresented minority group. It was there again when Obama ran -- whether to support him unquestioningly because he represented aspirations to power for African Americans or whether to be critical of his expressed policies or even support Clinton (a longtime supporter of African American interests). Racial unity won in 2008. It is not surprising to me that there is reticence to express criticism of Thomas in 2014.

    This isn't about name-calling. This is about whether it is OK to express a public criticism of someone African American when you yourself are African American, or whether that hurts the race because it lends support to oppression by the larger society, which will be critical enough without adding to it.

    But there is a taboo against discussing such racial issues outside the race. So you get nonsensical mumbling that conveys no substantive meaning. If you doubt that race is as salient for African Americans as it is for white Americans, conversations like this make it crystal clear that they too draw a strong line between us and "them" (e.g., white America). Until that changes, no one will tell the truth about Clarence Thomas.

    The term "Uncle Tom" used to refer to someone who tried to get ahead by pleasing white America. I think Clarence Thomas genuinely believes in his ideology and is not a good jurist, but those faults are not captured by the phrase Uncle Tom. I have no right to criticize him in any respect because I am not African American and thus I will be called racist if I state that he, like others on the court, are not good jurists. On the other hand, African Americans are not doing anyone a favor when they use the wrong terms to describe Clarence Thomas's performance on the court.

    1. Correction -- Anita Hill


    2. Would you call John Yoo a Kim Jong Il? Would it be cool to call Bernie Madoff a Shylock?

  2. To the person who asked for cites of studies showing that African American children in less integrated schools had higher self esteem, I have added them to the earlier thread about Tuscaloosa.

  3. "Not a good jurist" is a poor label for Clarence Thomas. While the press has largely turned a blind eye (only one aspect of the Tomism) conservatives like David in Ca. have sung the praises of this obvious incompetent, who sits in utter boredom through the cases, has his clerks pen his reactionary opinions and cashes his paychecks, an utter incompetent in one of the most important positions in the country. Back in the days when Thomas perjured his way on to the court many people, like me, foolishly decided to give him a chance. Hating the public sexual shaming of anyone, we hoped he might rise to the occasion and attempt to do his best. How horribly wrong we were. The best argument that Thmas is NOT an Uncle Tom would be that he is simply too well paid to garner the label, and his discussing and completely endorsed by the media book deal (left justices do it now too) gave him another chance to endorse his evil and corrupt mentality, as when he did not recuse himself from Bush Vs Gore. But plucked from obscurity to serve the interests of the White Power structure as a whore on the Court, yes, he most certainly is an Uncle Tom.

  4. Greg,I don't think anyone has a license, for any reason, to supposedly express an intellectual judgment by hurling personal insults.

    It's a cheap shot that tries to wrap vindictive nastiness up in the patina of a well thought out position. In the congressman's case he tied up his little package of verbal vomit (hey, look, I did it too) with a big ribbon of racial entitlement.

    In fact your comment, IMO, with more objective loaded for bear words such as "reactionary", "perjured", "evil", "corrupt" is just more of the same; this tendency today to label those who disagree with what is obviously eternal truth, our own opinions and beliefs.

  5. The comment above was by me, Grammie.

    Sorry, I didn't know how to get on here and use my blogger name, Grammie.

    1. Is "Grammie" the source of that little voice you keep hearing in your head?