WEDNESDAY, MARCH 31, 2021
His question remains unanswered: For reasons our history makes sadly obvious, questions of "race" are everywhere in our nation's public discussions.
This very morning, to cite one example, the New York Times offers a profile of the people who are serving on the Derek Chauvin jury. For reasons which are sadly obvious, that news report starts like this (principal headline included):
Who Are the Jurors in the Derek Chauvin Trial?
MINNEAPOLIS — A white intensive care nurse who said if she saw someone on the street who needed help, she would feel obligated to step in. A Black grandmother who said she had no personal experience with the police or the criminal justice system.
A white widow who rides a motorcycle in her spare time and said she believes that “all lives matter.” A Black man who works in banking and said he was eager to serve on the jury of “the most historic case of my lifetime.”
These are some of the jurors appointed to weigh the evidence in the case of Derek Chauvin, the white former police officer who is accused of murdering George Floyd, a Black man.
The jury is a demographic mix: three Black men, one Black woman, and two women who identified themselves as multiracial. There are two white men and four white women. They are urban and suburban, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s. The two alternates are white women.
Every member of the jury is identified by his or her "race." Beyond that, Chauvin, the defendant in the trial, is identified by race. So is the late George Floyd, the man Chauvin stands accused of murdering.
(The word "Black" gets capitalized; the word "white" does not. At the Washington Post, each of these words gets capitalized now when it's used to refer to "race." At each newspaper, these are recent adaptations. These are the ways we struggle and flail as we deal, or attempt to deal, with our nation's brutal history with respect to "race.")
Race! It's the first characteristic the New York Times cites as it describes the jurors. (Age and gender are also cited.) We all understand why the newspaper does this—although then again, maybe we don't.
Questions of "race" play a central role in our nation's public discussions. Sadly, this comes to us as part of "the world the slaveholders made," to use a construction from Professor Genovese.
Within our nation, but also around the globe, we humans have tended to divide ourselves into groups on the basis of "race" (or tribe, or ethnicity). But how do we understand that concept and those divisions?
Four years ago, up stepped Professor Gates! He asked a question we have described as the best question ever asked.
He posed his question to Ava DuVernay, the director of the Oscar-nominated film, Selma. To watch their (good-natured) exchange, you can just click here.
Their exchange went down like this:
DuVernay was appearing as a guest on Gates' PBS program, Finding Your Roots. Gates had shared the history of some of DuVernay's ancestors—and several of those people were "white."
DuVernay identifies as black. This led to the good natured exchange in question.
Professor Gates was about to let DuVernay see the results of her DNA test. At issue was the following question:
How much of DuVernay's DNA had tracked back to Europe? How much of her DNA had tracked back to African roots?
As you can see if you watch the tape, the exchange between Gates and DuVernay was partly comic—though also, in part it was not.
Eventually, it became clear that this question did matter to DuVernay. Under current arrangements, there's no reason why it shouldn't.
Eventually, DuVernay read the results of her DNA profile. She was thrilled with the results, leading Gates to ask the best question ever asked:
GATES: Can you read those percentages?
DUVERNAY: 57.3 percent African—thank you! 41.5 percent European. This makes me so happy.
GATES (chuckling): I can tell.
DUVERNAY: This makes me so happy.
GATES: Wait a minute. What difference does it make?
"What difference does it make?" the professor asked. Yesterday, we told you what we assume he meant.
We assume he meant that the DNA in question is all just human DNA. It doesn't make any actual difference what part of the world it tracks to.
DuVernay went on to say this: "It does make a difference to me." Her affable host didn't push his guest on the question he had asked.
We're assuming we know what Gates meant. We're assuming he meant what every liberal will eventually say, but at this time only when pushed.
We're assuming he meant that there's no biological meaning to the concept of "race." Beyond that, we're assuming he meant that all our DNA is just plain old human DNA. There are no essential differences in the various strands of our DNA , no matter where they "came from."
Is that what Professor Gates meant? Were he here, we'd ask!
Among his many strengths, Gates is comfortable talking about "race," no matter what "race" his guest might be. He may understand that, quoting the poet, "them old dreams are all in your head." (Though of course, that's only true concerning "race" in the biological sense.)
There was absolutely nothing wrong with DuVernay's jocular reaction to the DNA reveal. On the other hand, her reaction—her obviously heartful feelings—may not make perfect sense.
Most of our reactions and feelings make something less than perfect sense. Tomorrow, though, we're going to start asking a type of "new age" question:
At one time, the liberal world emphasized the idea that "there's no such thing as race." Today, progressive thinking has taken Our Town in a vastly different direction.
Add in a highly performative mainstream press corps and we may start to achieve an unhelpful blend concerning this central topic. It isn't clear that a modern. continental nation can hope to endure, given the road we're now on.
There was nothing wrong with what DuVernay said. What she said was thoroughly human.
Professor Gates was a courteous host. But he did ask the world's greatest question.
At one time, it was a point of liberal emphasis—we people are all the same. Today, our emphasis has largely shifted to assertions of difference.
Can a large nation function this way? Across the globe, humanitarians like Putin and Xi are happily betting we can't.
Tomorrow: A strikingly personal column