OUR CONVERSATIONS TO NOWHERE: In search of a conversation about race!

MONDAY, MARCH 23, 2015

Part 1—Or about anything else:
Mercifully, Howard Schultz has called a halt to his conversation about race.

It isn’t that his call to converse was changing things at our own Starbucks. To state the obvious, baristas don’t have time for conversations about race, or about anything else, when they’re serving complex drinks to long lines of glowering people.

To us, Schultz seemed more like Howard Beale in his strange videotaped request. To us, he seemed almost totally daft—and we don’t mean that in a good way!

Does Howard Schultz have any idea what a “conversation” is? How about the tons of pundits who used his peculiar declaration as a way to kill a column last week, or a TV segment or three?

Do they know what “conversation” is? Increasingly, we don’t feel sure.

(How about Professor Harris-Perry? Yesterday, she burned a half hour showing us that the “Nerdland” gang knows more about race than Schultz does. To us, this utter waste of time was every bit as daft as the latte magnate’s original request.)

Do major journalists know what a “conversation” is? Increasingly, we wonder. Consider Rachel Swarns’ column in today’s New York Times.

Swarns decided to take the upbeat approach to our conversation about having a conversation. She found a pair of co-workers who say they’ve had a productive conversation about race in the past year.

Just as it would be in a movie, their names are Chittle and Jones.

As Swarns starts her column, Jones is trying to start a conversation in the company lunchroom last summer. More specifically, he wanted to start a conversation about the shooting of Michel Brown:
SWARNS (3/23/15): Carl Jones brought it up over lunch in the company break room: the news of the shooting death of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. “Did you read about it?” Mr. Jones, a software engineer who is black, remembers asking his colleagues. “How could this happen?”

He told his white and Asian-American co-workers about his feelings of outrage as they ate Korean takeout at the lunch table at their technology company in Manhattan. He described the waves of anger and anxiety sweeping over him.

Mr. Jones, the only black employee in his department, had always talked with his work friends about sports, movies and current events. But this conversation last summer was different. One white colleague challenged him, asking: “How do you know the shooting wasn’t justified?” Others averted their eyes and finished the meal in silence.

He knew then that he had crossed an invisible line. The discussion of race that day changed the social dynamics at the table, chilling his co-workers’ camaraderie.

“Everyone did their best to avoid the conversation,” Mr. Jones, 33, recalled last week as he described the day that he discussed the shooting in Ferguson, Mo. Race is often the elephant in the room, he said, and “a lot of times people feel uncomfortable talking about it.”
There’s no doubt about it. Many times, people will feel uncomfortable talking about racial topics, certainly so in a workplace setting.

It’s easy to talk about sports at work. Talking about the Ferguson shooting would almost surely be harder.

Carl Jones seems like a very good person. It isn’t surprising that he was upset about the shooting of Michael Brown. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t have wanted to see the topic discussed.

That said, people have always been told—you shouldn’t discuss religion or politics at Thanksgiving dinner. There are obvious reasons for avoiding such subjects in certain types of situations. Any topic involving race could be added to that mix.

Carl Jones seems like a very good person. After discussing the Starbucks request, Swarns returns to his efforts.

According to Swarns, Jones just kept raising racial concerns at work. In the course of the past seven months, he made at least one friend:
SWARNS: [A]s protests swelled over the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the police on Staten Island and began to dominate the news, Mr. Jones noticed a change. His colleagues started sharing news stories with him, he said, and their own thoughts and questions about racial issues.

He discovered that one of his white colleagues had participated in a protest over the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer in Mr. Garner’s death.
The two men were at the same demonstration in Washington Square Park but had not bumped into each other.

They looked at each other in astonishment.

“I think we both were a bit scared at first to make sure we were on the same sheet of paper,” said the colleague, Shawn G. Chittle, 42, who took care in his early conversations with Mr. Jones not to “ruffle any feathers.”

“But I saw some emotion in Carl’s face,” said Mr. Chittle, a product manager at Magnetic who has become close to Mr. Jones. “I wanted him to know he had a confidant.”
As it turns out, Chittle and Jones are now friends. As she closes her column, Swarns suggests that Jones has had productive conversations with other co-workers as well.

What has happened in that workplace? We have no idea. We did notice a couple of things about this rather formulaic column:

First, Jones and Chittle seem to share a general view about these issues. As a general matter, it’s easy to talk about race (or politics or religion) with people who share your views. The problem starts with people who may be inclined to see things differently.

Swarns seems to suggest that Jones and his co-workers have had no problems discussing race as time has moved along. That may well be the case.

Still, we couldn’t help noting a second point, a dog which didn’t bark in this column. What have Jones and his colleagues ended up thinking about the shooting of Brown?

According to Swarns, these discussions started last summer when Michael Brown was killed. Jones wondered how the shooting could have happened. One of his co-workers said the shooting might have been “justified” in some way.

Three weeks ago, the Justice Department basically said that the shooting was justified. They seemed to say, in an official report, that all the shots that were fired that day were fired in self-defense.

Is that a sound judgment? We aren’t really sure. We would prefer that police officers fire their guns as rarely as possible. In certain circumstances, when people refuse to submit to arrest, we might even prefer that officers run away.

That said, the Justice Department seemed to say that Wilson had no way of knowing that Brown didn’t have a gun when he advanced on Wilson, refusing to be arrested. What has Jones come think about that? How about the rest of the lunchroom?

What has Jones come to think about this, his initial topic? In a typical bit of journalism, Rachel Swarns didn’t ask and Jones didn’t say!

Swarns was writing a feel-good piece. In such columns, such compliactions may get omitted, even though they raise the most basic questions:

Can people come to admit that they may have been wrong in their initial reactions? Can people who started with different instincts reach some place of agreement, respect or accommodation, even concerning emotional issues?

Swarns failed to discuss the resolution of the original question. This leads to the question we’ll ponder this week:

Do our modern journalists even know what a “conversation” is? Beyond that, how about us the people? Do we have any idea?

We ask these questions for a reason. Our modern political conversations often take a peculiar form:

Some individual act occurs. It may involve the shooting of an unarmed young man. It may involve the arrest of a UVa student on St. Patrick’s Day.

It may involve an allegation—the allegation of a hideous sexual assault at that same university. It may involve a set of reactions to a debate on an Ivy League campus.

Our “conversations” often start at such points. From there, a familiar pattern obtains:

Within our various tribal groups, we get busy making up facts about the event in question. Multimillionaire TV stars will often help us along.

On the basis of our invented facts, we start explaining what the event in question means. When it turns out that our basic facts were false, we often just keep stating them anyway—though by that time, we may be busy inventing facts about the next event.

Conversations of this type aren’t real conversations at all. Increasingly, though, that’s the way our discourse tends to work.

Do our major journalists even know that this is a problem? And what about us the people? Do we the people have any idea how real “conversation” works?

Tomorrow: An arrest at UVa


  1. What the....? We were promised a Spring Training Preview of 2016 and Somerby wants to steer us back to a discussion of race?

    Well, since Bob Somerby said "Starting Monday, we'll discuss how liberals and Democrats should deal with the upcoming mess" let's jump start things a bit. He won't mind. He never reads the comments anyway.

    We know Hillary has not learned a thing about how to deal with the press. It is time we turned to someone who has proven he can withstand a two year war against him by the press and still win the popular vote in a Presidential election (if counting votes, not polls matters).

    Bob has been holding back on us. Let's start the conversation that young whippersnapper Somerby often derides wants us to have at work:

    Al Gore: 2016


    1. You expect Bob to remember on Monday what he promised on Friday?

    2. No. But it was promised Saturday, and unless Bob is treating his analysts like restaveks again and making them cry, they could be trained to remind him.

  2. "To us, Schultz seemed more like Howard Beale in his strange videotaped request. To us, he seemed almost totally daft—and we don’t mean that in a good way!" said the blogger who reminds many of his readers of Lt. Commander Queeg.

  3. A real conversation about Ferguson would include Brown's bizarre behavior. We know he roughed up a convenience store clerk, because we saw the video. It's pretty much established that he tussled with Officer Wilson and tried to grab his gun while Wilson was sitting in his police car. Why did Brown behave this way?

    If some white person engaged in a conversation about race and raised this point, I suspect he'd be called a racist.

    1. And why, for heaven's sake, after fleeing a hundred and fifty feet after being shot only once in the hand by Officer Wilson did he suddenly turn around and decide to charge?

    2. I want to know what became of the cigarillos.

    3. He might have been schizophrenic, as pointed out by this columnist...


    4. Anon @ 12:11 I'm assuming you know the answer is that with shots whizzing past him and one hitting the back of his arm, Brown turned around, raised his hands, said OK, OK..., started to walk back to the officer, the office paused in his firing, then opened fire on Brown, hitting him with nearly all the final shots since Brown had become a sitting duck. And that is exactly what the tape with the sounds of his shooting confirms, and also the words of the best witnesses. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BiL-E5WAaUU

    5. David, is there a point when even you get tired about posting the same damned things day after day?

    6. David, it was not in any way whatsoever even remotely established that Brown went for Wilson's gun. THAT was just one part of Wilson's excuses he took months to put together. It is just as likely (or more) from the reliable witnesses that Wilson was enraged when Johnson talked back to him ("We're almost to our destination"), and the two didn't get out of the road as Wilson had demanded. Wilson then instantly slammed on the brakes and backed into them because he was enraged. He did of course lie to claim he 'suddenly linked them' to the shoplifting. And Wilson just as likely lied over his own going for his gun and Brown, fearing he was going to be shot, trying to stop him.

    7. hardindr "seems" to have backed off the firmer psychiatric diagnosis he offered just a few days ago:

      Then (3/19): ".... Michael Brown, a young man that I believe was possibly schizophrenic."

      Now: "He might have been schizophrenic, as pointed out by this columnist..."

      Perhaps hardindr, with no serious credential for such a diagnosis backed off in preference to Gene Lyons, the columnist he referenced. Lyons, a favorite of Somerby's, is a former Professor, but of English, not pyschology or psychiatric medicine.

      In addition, I don't think Lyons did diagnose Brown as schizophrenic, but rather made the kind of comment which would make a regular Somerby reader think he "seemed" to do so.

      Lyons should take a lesson from Somerby and not be so "fuzzy" in his writing that a reader like hardindr could be misled. He should have just called Brown "daft" and compared him to a fictional character like Howard Beale or Captain Queeg.

    8. I think the kid had very poor impulse control, punching a cop three times in the face, not to mention his conduct in the convience store is proof of that.

      Sadly, I see a lot of that these days. Kids running wild in supermarkets, opening packages, and playing with the food all the while slackjaw Ma just looks on. Michael may well have had that same kind of upbringing.

    9. Well we all get to imagine exactly the kind of upbringing anybody "may well have had" that also conveniently fits the narrative we want to believe.

      Much harder to admit we really don't know nearly as much as we "think" we do, so it's OK to pull "facts" out of our asses.

    10. Watch what you ask for, DinC. , You might end whining about how his frustration with Ferguson's peonage program is just an excuse for his "thuggish" behavior.
      Let's just agree he was shot by a gang member, and leave it at that.

    11. Michael was merely upholding the respected Prison Code of Honor, when dissed you lash out and go gangsta.

    12. It is a good thing we have a former inmate like @ 4:15 around to explain that to us. Just like we have a former working journalist in Bob to explain guild conduct in that field.

    13. Clean record, not that it matters here. Maybe I just get out and about more than some. Between those cycling in and out of jail on the Lifetime Installament Plan and the young wannabes lack much in the way of responsible guidence, that street "ethic" is not at all uncommon.

    14. Richard Spencer and Jared TaylorMarch 23, 2015 at 5:26 PM

      3:21 & 4:15 - we couldn't say it any better.

    15. Richard Spencer and Jared TaylorMarch 23, 2015 at 5:27 PM

      And 5:25 too.

    16. "The guild" doesn't criticize its own. Maybe they are above criticism. One guy, Somerby, does the only critique focusing on so-called "high end", and corporate "liberal" media. I don't know of anyone, anywhere else who does it. For some people even that is just too much to bear.

    17. There is indeed nobody critiquing the corporate liberal media except:

      Rush Limbaugh
      Bill O'Reilly
      Sean Hannity
      Juan Williams
      Greta Van Sustern
      Mara Liason
      G. Gordon Liddy
      Michael Medved
      Mike Huckabee
      Glenn Beck
      John Stossel
      Howie Kurtz
      David Horowitz
      Ann Coulter
      Laura Ingraham
      Peggy Noonan
      David Limbaugh
      Jonah Goldberg
      Mona Charen
      Linda Chavez
      John Fund
      Tucker Carlson
      Jeff Jacoby
      Dick Morris
      Thomas Sowell
      Cal Thomas
      Brent Bozell
      Neil Cavuto
      Charles Krauthammer
      Phyllis Schlafly
      George Will
      Matt Drudge
      Lawrence Kudlow
      Pat Buchanan
      Ari Fleisher

    18. He almost certainly had a negligent upbringing, no father around or involved in the way one should be, and just didn't value his own life much. People told by the left that they are second-class citizens in a hopelessly racist culture become apathetic.

    19. Richard Spencer and Jared TaylorMarch 23, 2015 at 6:46 PM

      And 6:33.

    20. "He almost certainly had a negligent upbringing, no father around or involved in the way one should be,"

      Excuse me, but my father died in an auto accident when I was 5 years old, and my mother raised my younger brother and I on a grocery clerk's salary.

      I supposed that made my upbringing "negligent" as well.

      You know, some people really need to think first before they open their yaps . . . or click "publish".

      You have no idea how the hell either Michael Brown or I were raised.

    21. @6:17, all those names listed have a clear ideological ax to grind, none to me are credible. This site comes from a different self-critical perspective. I don't agree with each one of his opinions, but if liberals dare approach with an open mind could learn a thing or two and become much more effective.

    22. Brown was the age when symptoms of schizophrenia typically appear and his family did note that his behavior was inconsistent with his personality. It is not unreasonable to suggest he might have been having problems like that. When someone behaves out-of-character and seems out-of-control, drugs are another possibility, but that was addressed by the autopsy.

    23. Interesting, 8:17, because when I read Somerby's never-ending narrative about the topic at hand -- the death of Michael Brown -- I find nothing to distinguish the ax he's been grinding for three weeks from "all those names listed (who) have a clear ideological ax to grind."

      But I guess if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, swims like a duck and calls itself a dog, there are those who will believe it is a dog.

      But hey, I got an open mind. I keep being told that if I listen to Somerby, I'll become a "much more effective" liberal.

      So I come here every day hoping to read something I didn't hear on Bill O'Reilly's show. And I leave here every day disappointed.

    24. @6:17,
      Only liberals Juan Williams ,Mara Liason, and Howie Kurtz are critiquing the liberal media?

    25. And sadly, Somerby, and all those names you listed were apparently right. Your three star witnesses, it turns out, didn't pass the smell test. In reserving judgement Somerby's liberal instincts proved right. You pretended to be creating a movement based on a witness who said he might have just been hallucinating ... there is indeed a lesson to be learned.

    26. How long does it take a 6"4" enraged, crazed black man to run 25 feet?

    27. @8:21 I think you might be on to something. I had a good friend in high school and saw an example of how it can unfold and reveal itself. What was strange was that when he was most symptomatic he wasn't anguished confused or in distress, he seemed a bit on the cheerful side, it was hard to tell that he wasn't just joking.

    28. I'll clarify what I wrote. I think the best explanation for Brown's behavior the day he died was that he was mentally ill, probably a schizophrenic. I can't be sure because he was never diagnosed, and, unfortunately, never treated. It is my understanding that you can't diagnose the disease with an autopsy, so we will never be sure. What other explanations do people have for his behavior, that are consistent with the physical evidence in the case, the findings from the DOJ report, and his bizarre behavior in the run up to the tragic shooting?

    29. Both Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin tested positive for the chemical indicating that they had used marijuana. I don't believe that the tests showed how much or how little. Marijuana is not usually associated with aggressive behavior. However, conceivably these may have been exceptional situations where the drug had an unusual impact.

    30. Amazing how many psychiatrists read and comment here.

    31. Yes, indeed, David. You put Super Negroes like Trayvon and Michael on weed and no white man is safe! Not even a trained 6-4 cop.

    32. This article might be pertinent to the discussion:


    33. I thought the kid had a clean record in his past.
      The officer, OTOH, came from a police force disbanded for being racist.

      Culture of criminality, indeed.

  4. Chittle and Jones sounds like a movie? Gore and Jones inspired Love Story!

    Somerby rhymes with the name of a hygiene product?

  5. Yes, another week of saying the same things about Michael Brown.

    And just this morning, Ted Cruz announced for president. Soon those meanies at MSNBC will be saying the same awful things about him that they said about Al Gore just 16 years ago.

    Is Bob ready to rush to the defense of Ted Cruz?

    1. Bob's top 2 choices for POTUS in 2016:
      Rahm Emanuel
      Andrew Cuomo

      Dinky & cheerio's top 2 choices:
      Ryan Giroux
      Steve King

    2. Any thoughts on a possible run by former VA Sen Jim Webb? If nothing else he figures to be to the left of Clinton regarding foreign policy, including Israel and might make a very formatable national candidate.

  6. Bob's right -- the topic of race should be regarded as something one does not typically discuss in polite company, along with the traditional troika of religion, politics, and sex. Inviting baristas and customers at Starbucks to get involved in a "conversation" about race was as ridiculous as inviting them to get involved in a "conversation" about, for example, abortion.

    1. When you cannot discuss religion in polite company only rude people will have religion.

    2. If you attempt to discuss race at work and someone complains about you, you will be putting your job in jeopardy. It will also make you seem like someone less promotable if you behave in a way that is insensitive to what is normally considered polite behavior. God help you if you express an opinion different than you boss's during one of those lunch time chats.

    3. So you find it impossible to discuss race without being insensitive.

    4. No, he wants to seem eager for promotion so he acts normal while chatting up the boss at lunch.

    5. It is insensitive to discuss race, religion, sex or politics at work.

    6. Yes @ 11:55, plus it feels churlish to rain on the parade of black people at work by pointing out that Obama was under-qualified and lacking in experience, or to raise any of the many objections to his candidacy.

    7. One side gets to state their opinions while the other does not. That's why no one wants to talk about race at work.

    8. Which side is that? And are you on it?

  7. "Tomorrow: An arrest at UVa"

    Yep, can't wait for Bob to tell us what a "thug" that kid was and how he had it coming for the unspeakable, unheard of crime for being an underage college kid trying to enter a bar.

    That is, if he remembers to post it tomorrow.

    1. I hope he writes about the myth of rape culture instead since that is more recent UVa news. Other than their bracket busting hoops loss. I mention that because you can discuss sports at work, unlike sex and race.

    2. It is not a crime in VA for an underage person to enter a bar. He was denied entrance for the technicality that, when asked, he gave a zip code that did not match the one on his valid ID. The bar by policy then denied him entrance. The axxholes from state enforcement then pounced on him with no knowledge of why he was denied entrance

    3. Interesting to see what Somerby is going to say now that the management of the bar has called the cop story that Johnson was drunk and belligerent "patently false."

      In fact, they say he was not intoxicated at all, and was quite polite and cordial.

      Then again, how can we believe anything those foolish witnesses say?

  8. Shultz's was a well meaning error. It points to something I am afeared Bob, with his sometimes highly dubious musings on race is probably correct about: liberals don't want to have conversations about race, they take any modest dissent on a given point as proof they are actually talking to a virtual Klansman. It has poisoned the issue, no matter how absurdly right wingers overplay the reverse racism victim bit. That should stop, and I suspect over time, maybe a lot of time, it will.

    1. That may be true in this combox, Greg. But I wouldn't be so quick to confuse what goes on here with how people talk in "real life."

      What I seem to find more of here in our One True Liberal Blog is that no allegation of racism is ever taken very seriously. In fact, you are just as likely to read the "overplay the reverse racism victim bit" here -- in both the blog itself and the combox -- as you are to hear it from Sean Hannity.

      But thanks for the lecture on proper behavior anyway.

    2. @ Greg: "liberals don't want to have conversations about race"

      And I never met a Greg who was conversant about anything, but most were cute as children.

    3. Both my replies here seem indicative of the new liberal spoiled bratism. Anom at 6:01, I agree, The Daily Howler (as I sort of suggest) is a frustrating case: he will accept on the most severe example of racism, and then laughs said examples off when they come along. But if you can't hack a ten line "lecture" I have to kind of assume takes that differ much from your own don't provoke dialogue, which takes us to the hapless Anon at 11:44, a new low in combox idiocy. If you dismiss people because of their name, genius, you probably linger a level or two beneath racism.

    4. All liberals look alike Greg.

  9. People may have felt uncomfortable and reluctant to talk with Jones because, after expressing how upset he was, they may have felt that disagreeing with him would have increased his pain. No one wants to make another person feel worse.

    When Clinton was running against Obama, several of my black coworkers expressed joy that he was running, enthusiasm for his candidacy and hope that a black man might be elected. It felt churlish to rain on their parade by pointing out that he was under-qualified and lacking in experience, or to raise any of the many objections to his candidacy. When the so-called conversation is about feelings instead of ideas and facts and substance, there is no way to disagree without making others feel bad and that stifles any conversation.

    It is natural for people to want to be liked. If you know that expressing disagreement will jeopardize friendship, you suppress that disagreement. You can ask whether that is true friendship, but most of our friendships are casual and won't stand up to serious disagreement, especially on matters that are truly important.

    There will never be conversation about race as long as black or white people make it about how they feel instead of what they think.

    1. What are we? Vulcans? I happen to think that our "feelings" are a very important part of decision-making. Otherwise, the human race would have died out a long time ago. Who would have made the cold, calculated rational decision to mate?

      I also think that the Obama candidacy in 2008 was about a lot more than the "feelings" of 11 percent of the population, otherwise he would have never survived the Iowa caucus.

    2. I agree with you Anonymous @ 8:31. It was unfair of Obama's black supporters to not recognize that because Hillary Clinton had held elective office four years less than Obama, he was less qualified, It really would have been churlish of you to point this out.

      Where is Kristof when we need him?

    3. Obama demonstrated his inexperience from day one of his presidency. It is no longer a matter of opinion.

    4. So 9:57, are you the same person who commented at 8:31?

    5. Yes, poor inexperienced Obama just got a health care reform bill passed in the midst of and while addressing an economic meltdown left at his doorstep by his predecessor along with two wars.

    6. I guess @9:57 and/or @ 8:31 decided to depart or didn't feel/think it was worth jeopardizing friendships to claim her/their

    7. That's exactly what I say to those who never got over Hillary Clinton losing the Democratic nomination despite a seemingly insurmountable lead.

  10. Brown didn't need to be armed to justify the shooting. Wilson need only realize he could quickly become armed with Wilson's weapon, or was likely to harm someone else after fleeing.