Part 3—Columnist brings us together: Back in 1968, an eighth-grader held up a sign at a rally for Candidate Nixon.
The sign became famous, so much so that it has its own Wikipedia entry. “Bring us together,” her sign famously said.
That didn’t occur under Nixon. But as of today, it seems that the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof has accomplished this worthwhile task.
Last Sunday, Kristof posted the fifth installment in his endless series, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It.” In this morning’s paper, a letter captures two of our own reactions:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (12/3/14): Does anyone other than me find Nicholas Kristof’s “When Whites Just Don’t Get It” series condescending?The letter writer is “black;” we ourselves are “white.” But like the writer, we have found Kristof’s series to be quite condescending.
Who made Mr. Kristof the spokesman for blacks’ justified anger toward racism in America? I certainly don’t feel that he speaks for me and the other 40 million-plus black Americans. I think his solutions—“a new commission,” a “national conversation”—are the old bromides that won’t have any real effect on the problem, at least not while the parties in power are not talking to each other.
New York, Nov. 30, 2014
We agree with the letter writer in a second way. We thought the start of Sunday’s column drowned us in tedious bromides.
This is the way the column began, nagging headline included:
KRISTOF (11/30/14): When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 5Part 5! Teacher refuses to quit!
We Americans are a nation divided.
We feud about the fires in Ferguson, Mo., and we can agree only that racial divisions remain raw. So let’s borrow a page from South Africa and impanel a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine race in America.
The model should be the 9/11 commission or the Warren Commission on President Kennedy’s assassination, and it should hold televised hearings and issue a report to help us understand ourselves. Perhaps it could be led by the likes of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and Oprah Winfrey.
A bit later, Kristof pictures this commission conducting a “national conversation,” just as the letter writer said.
Kristof said we’re a nation divided. But as he started his column, he chose a framework which was certain to divide people even more.
He suggested we pattern our national conversation on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Predictably, commenters found this suggestion insulting, offensive. People stopped listening fast.
Kristof imagined the panel could be led by Presidents Clinton and Bush—and by Oprah, of course. From what planet does such piffle emerge?
The last time we saw Oprah, she was asking Lindsay Lohan if she wanted to proceed with a kitschy reality show on Oprah’s cable channel. On Sunday, meanwhile, liberal commenters mocked the thought that a clown like President Bush could possibly lead this commission. And does Kristof think that President Clinton would tackle this task, even as his wife, Hillary Clinton, stages a run for the White House?
We agree with that letter writer! Kristof’s proposal struck us as a tired old bromide, dressed up in a way guaranteed to insult and offend.
Let us suggest the sheer absurdity of a “national conversation” on race—a gigantic topic in our tortured history, a gigantic topic which can’t be addressed in a mere conversation.
(In June 1997, President Clinton appointed an eight-member panel to conduct such a discussion. How many members of that panel can you name today? Can you remember a single thing they said in their final report?)
We agree with that letter writer. To us, a “national conversation” on race seems like a lazy suggestion out of the past, like the ultimate bromide.
That said, we aren’t sure why the writer, who is black, feels that Kristof’s columns have been condescending. Kristof is talking down to “whites” in his series, a group to which he himself no longer quite seems to belong.
Tomorrow, we’ll consider some of the condescension voiced in this endless series. We’ll look at (predictable) comments from readers who complained that they’ve been condescended to.
For today, let’s consider the kind of examples Kristof gave us in Sunday’s fifth installment. For this, we will refer to another letter in this morning’s Times.
What kinds of truths can our Truth Commission offer to clueless whites? The analysts groaned as Kristof cited a study they have reviewed in the past:
KRISTOF (continuing directly): We as a nation need to grapple with race because the evidence is overwhelming that racial bias remains deeply embedded in American life. Two economists, Joseph Price and Justin Wolfers, found that white N.B.A. referees disproportionally call fouls on black players, while black refs call more fouls on white players. “These biases are sufficiently large that they affect the outcome of an appreciable number of games,” Price and Wolfers wrote.Does racial bias remain deeply embedded in American life? In that example, Kristof refers to a 2007 study—a study whose methodology and results are disputed today in a letter from an NBA executive.
If such racial bias exists among professional referees monitored by huge television audiences, imagine what unfolds when an employer privately weighs whom to hire, or a principal decides whether to expel a disruptive student, or a policeman considers whether to pull over a driver.
The analysts groaned when they saw this citation—not because they know the study to be flawed, but because they knew its findings to be quite minor.
In one way, Kristof seems to misstate those findings. But he never notes the degree to which rates of foul calls in the NBA were found to vary depending on the race of referees.
How “deeply embedded” was race found be in this particular study? According to the study, the rate of fouls seemed to vary by a factor of about four percent.
The authors said the change in the number of fouls mainly affected white players. They said they couldn’t tell if this was because white refs called “too few” calls on white players, or because black refs called too many.
Whatever! If we assume the study was valid, this is a minor distinction. It might be mildly interesting that such effects can be observed in one part of American life. But good God!
Given the sweep of societal problems connected to race and its history, we would be living in paradise if one group had two percent too much while the other had two percent too little. Given the size of our actual problems, that is a very minor bit of embedding.
Rightly or wrongly, that study found a rather minor effect. But like a magician yelling presto, Kristof amazed us with his description, failing to note how minor the observed effect actually was.
We readers were supposed to cower and cringe, ashamed of our fallen natures. This kind of paint-by-the-numbers citation strikes us as lazy and counterproductive.
Alas! There are many topics involving race which deserve careful discussion. That said, there is no point conducting such discussions unless we do so in a way to which different people will listen.
That letter writer from New York said he has found Kristof’s work “condescending.” We don’t know why he feels that way, but that’s been our reaction as well.
At least on this one basic point, Kristof’s columns have brought us together! That said, why have we found his columns condescending?
Tomorrow, we’ll try to explain. And we’ll look at comments from readers who feel condescended to.
Tomorrow: Advice from Olympus