WEDNESDAY, JUNE 9, 2021
Norris spots flaws Over There: Should the United States undertake a "national conversation on race?" Also, should we undertake a national conversation of the type Michele Norris is proposing?
The conversation proposed by Norris would be quite extensive; it might last for decades, she says. Also, it seems that this conversation would proceed from the top down. Once again, this is her nugget proposal:
NORRIS (6/6/21): When Barack Obama was first elected president in 2008, there was an expectation that he would lead some kind of national conversation about race. We don’t place the same expectations on White leaders for some reason, but we should. President Biden was in Tulsa to mark the 100-year anniversary of one of the most vicious acts of racial violence in U.S. history...and he spoke directly about white supremacy in a way few presidents have...
That is a start. Biden should keep his foot on that pedal and launch an official inquiry about uncomfortable historical truths, and do it in a way that ensures that it will extend over years, if not decades. Because it is time for the United States to convene its own version of a truth and reconciliation commission and fully examine the horrors of slavery and their continued aftermath...
...[T]he collective American narrative needs a strong dose of truth. We need clear eyes and a firm spine, and then we need to chart a new path forward. That kind of step would also launch re-examinations of the treatment of America’s Indigenous peoples, the eugenics movement and the internment camps of the 1940s for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent.
As presented in that passage, this conversation would be remarkably extensive. Also, it would be "an official inquiry." It would be launched by President Biden, a good decent person (like Norris herself) who currently lives in the White House.
Norris says the inquiry should examine uncomfortable historical truths. We'll assume she thinks that some such inquiry should examine the full sweep of the nation's history, not just the horrible parts.
That said, she plainly stresses the atrocities and the horrors as her essay continues. Biden should get to them all.
Does it make sense to picture our nation conducting some such "conversation?" Also, is it possible that Norris is picturing something that's more like a lecture, less like a real dialogue?
Before the week is done, we'll return to the "irksome" question Norris says she fielded from a woman in 2015—the irksome question with which she opens and closes her essay.
Here in Our Town, we sometimes forget that The Others will never be as fully enlightened as we are. If we want to have a "conversation," we're going to have to accept the fact that The Others will always be less insightful and less moral than we are.
If we seek a conversation, we'll definitely have to expose ourselves to irksome comments, questions and points of view. If we want a real conversation, we may have to restrain our natural, possibly understandable tendency to cast aspersions and form prejudgments concerning all Other points of view.
It sometimes seems that Norris can only see or imagine error when it occurs Over There. As she continues, she describes the obstacles standing between what she later calls "our great nation" and the strong dose of truth we need:
NORRIS: ...[T]he collective American narrative needs a strong dose of truth. We need clear eyes and a firm spine, and then we need to chart a new path forward. That kind of step would also launch re-examinations of the treatment of America’s Indigenous peoples, the eugenics movement and the internment camps of the 1940s for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent.
And yet we are in a moment when hard truths are not just inconvenient, they are challenged and dismissed with great fanfare. A growing cottage industry is taking root among those who use their animus to stoke the fires of white grievance and feed the false claim that the hidden motive of all truth-seeking is to elevate people of color by making White people feel bad about themselves.
It is not surprising that some White people would be reluctant to dive into this history. We are still producing textbooks where the enslaved are called “workers of Africa.” And while racial fatigue is a real thing leading to real tensions and discomfort, it sometimes seems that people claim to be exhausted by a conversation that has never really taken place. I wonder whether people are just repelled by the idea of this conversation or they are really rattled by what they might hear.
These White People Today! Only some of them seem to be making mistakes. Everyone else has it right!
Without question, some "white people" may stand in the way of the perfect unveiling of truth. Is it possible that the same is true of some people from other "racial" groups? Even from some journalists and academics—from thought leaders here in Our Town?
If some white people avoid our true history, are members of other groups inclined to overstate at times? For example:
In the passage posted above, is that second highlighted statement true? Are "we" still producing textbooks "where the enslaved are called 'workers of Africa?' "
That's an enervating claim. Can it possibly be true?
For ourselves, we have no idea. As a general matter, we would assume that any foolishness one can imagine does exist, in some form and at some place, within our very large nation.
At the same time, we note that Norris provides no link in support of this claim. Our subsequent attempt at a Google search proved fruitless. How many "textbooks" (plural!) are we talking about?
In our experience, there's a lot of Imperfect cogitation on display in our large, sprawling nation. But Norris may be somewhat inclined to spot the foolishness coming from Others, while failing to imagine the possibility that some of the instincts found in Our Town may be unwise or unhelpful too.
Let's set those alleged textbooks aside. Is it possible that the other highlighted claim in that passage may be overstated or misleading in some way as well?
If you want to use such heated language, it may be true that some elements in our society are behaving in the way Norris describes—are creating a cottage industry "to stoke the fires of white grievance and feed the false claim that the hidden motive of all truth-seeking is to elevate people of color by making White people feel bad about themselves."
It may be true that some players are doing something like that! But is everyone who disagrees with Norris' instincts and judgments seeking to "feed the false claim that the hidden motive of all truth-seeking is to elevate people of color by making White people feel bad about themselves?"
Come to think of it, has anyone made that sweeping "false claim?" Has anyone ever really claimed that "the hidden motive of all truth-seeking is to make White people feel bad?"
Who is making that claim? And is it possible that some of the Others who may seem irksome are actually noting unhelpful or unwise instincts emerging from within Our Town?
Implausible though it may seem, is it possible that We can be wrong on occasion—that we can display imperfect judgment? Is it possible that Norris herself can, at times, be a bit too sure of her current point of view?
If she sometimes is, should that make her irksome? Also, this:
Is it possible that Norris is picturing a lecture more than a conversation? This basic question came to our mind at various points as we read the well-intentioned essay by the good, decent person in question.
We'll note two additional points:
As Norris was making her proposal, something resembling this national conversation was taking place all over the edition of the Washington Post in which her essay appeared.
News reports and opinion columns were examining issues of race extending all the way from the names of various birds (front-page report) to the names of various high schools and colleges to a recent seminar on race, for players, conducted by the Alexandria (Va.) Little League. This leads us to offer a gentle observation:
Like others in the mainstream press, Norris could be said to be jumping in front of a parade which is already underway. We sometimes wonder where these highly successful mainstream journalists were in the decades before this.
Something resembling a conversation is already underway! Sometimes, this seems to generate insightful work. Sometimes, it seems to generate trivia, even work which may be larded with exaggeration and error.
That said, should the conversation come from the top down? Should Biden make it official?
At a time when this nation can't even agree on whether Biden won last year's election, it isn't obvious that an official inquiry would gain traction with all comers. And in a nation conceived and dedicated as our nation officially is, no national conversation can proceed without an attempt to bring in the broad range of voices.
That means we'll have to tolerate irksome Others. They'll never be as brilliant as we are, but we can't get rid of them yet. If we're holding a conversation, they'll have to be part of the deal.
For today, we note one final point. Despite Norris' somewhat snarky complaint about what we don't expect of white leaders, one white leader already did convene a top-down conversation on race.
That white leader was Bill Clinton. Surely, no one has forgotten this:
One America in the 21st Century: The President's Initiative on Race, or the One America Initiative, was established by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1997 with Executive Order 13050. The main thrust of the effort was convening and encouraging community dialogue throughout the country. The Advisory Board's principal legacy was the collection and publication of "best practices" for racial reconciliation and dialogue guidelines designed to help communities discuss how to address racial and ethnic divisions in mutually productive ways.
The initiative was launched in June 1997. The seven-member advisory board was chaired by John Hope Franklin.
Seventeen months later, the board presented its voluminous findings. No one paid a bit of attention. The year of the great sex chase was on. Their findings blew in the wind.
None of what happened back then is Norris' fault. We were struck by the hint of snark as she discussed the things we expected from Obama but not from white leaders. As a general matter, we think a "national conversation" on a difficult subject proceeds best in the absence of snark.
Our nation could benefit from conversations on various topics. In theory, our brutal history concerning race would surely be one such topic.
That said, we've been struck, again and again, by the way Our Town has generated snark and error and shaky judgments ever since we decided to focus on issues of gender and race. We've made a lot of mistakes! But even as we generate these unhelpful behaviors, we may tend to retreat to the same space of noting the irksome comments of Others, full and complete total stop.
Conversations can't work that way. That sounds more like a lecture, a dose of truth from the top.
"Devil or angel?" Bobby Vee once asked. Today, it's conversation or lecture! Experts say we may not be perfectly wired for the more productive approach.
Tomorrow: Journalistically, the best part of Norris's essay
Friday: No one can say that such feelings are wrong