MONDAY, NOVEMBER 15, 2021
Attempts at discussing race: Yesterday morning, it was our very first search.
The English actress Thandiwe Newton, a good decent person, had spoken to the New York Times about a once-famous discussion. More specifically, here's what the Times' Kathryn Shattuck says that Newton said:
James Baldwin is to be read by everyone, everything, all of it. Just the genius of him—his sexuality, how he thought about religion, race. My husband spent years trying to find, because it’s out of print, “A Rap on Race” by Margaret Mead and James Baldwin. I should put every page on Instagram, just to share with people.
Margaret Mead to me is like a rock star. Like super cool. I’m an anthropologist and an archaeologist by trade. And I do see the bigger picture, unfortunately and fortunately. I see what humanity is doing, and the fact that this is all in the last tiny blip of time, and we’re [expletive] it up so severely.
We conducted a search for A Rap on Race. Here's part of what we found:
The once-famous discussion between Baldwin and Mead seems to have taken place in August 1970. A transcript of the discussion was published in book form in 1971.
The book has long been out of print. Copies can be purchased online, though only at a very high price.
It seems that the conversation, or parts of the conversation, were also released as a record album. When we conducted our search, we were whisked away to this YouTube posting.
Apparently, the YouTube posting presents an hour and forty-five minutes of the conversation as it was excerpted and presented on that record album.
We haven't listened to the whole thing. Yesterday morning, we were struck by a reference made by Mead about six minutes into the conversation.
When we searched on what Mead had said, it turned out that the famous anthropologist had perhaps engaged, at least by our lights, in a poorly founded bit of historical twaddle. Baldwin was possibly being polite, or perhaps he assumed that Mead's remarks were historically sound.
Are we the humans capable of having a serious "rap on race?" Are we up to the challenge of conducting intelligent discourse on a topic involving so much emotion—a topic which, for obvious reasons, is so historically fraught?
We'll explore that question all week. As we do, we'll offer excerpts from that original "Rap on Race." We'll also feature current attempts to discuss such topics as the recent Virginia election and the Kyle Rittenhouse trial.
Are we the humans up to the challenge of conducting such discussions? We'd say the prospects aren't very good. Consider a letter which appeared in yesterday's New York Times.
The letter concerns an earlier report in the Times—a lengthy report about fatal shootings by police officers. The letter contained an obvious howler. But there the erroneous letter sat, in the Sunday Times:
To the Editor:
Your article refers to officer-created jeopardy, when the police unnecessarily take risks in dealing with a driver and then argue that the risk required use of force. Officer-created jeopardy does not occur only in traffic situations.
A well-known example: Tamir Rice was killed in 2014 after officers, who had been notified that he held a gun, drove up very near to him, exited their vehicle and then shot the 12-year-old boy at close range on the basis that he posed immediate danger to them. Officers in that situation should have parked and exited their vehicle at some distance and used the vehicle as cover while they told him to drop his gun.
Officers need not place themselves in such danger in these situations, even where the gun is real, which was not the case for Tamir Rice.
T— G— / Washington
The letter refers to "a well-known example" of a fatal shooting incident. It proceeds to make an inaccurate statement about the "well-known" incident, with the writer claiming that the officers "exited their vehicle" before the fatal shooting occurred.
This fatal incident is indeed "a well-known example" of a fatal police shooting. The incident has been widely discussed in the past seven years.
That said, no one has ever claimed that the officers "exited their vehicle" before [they] "then shot the 12-year-old boy at close range." Simply put, even in this "well-known" incident, that isn't what actually happened.
We agree with the letter writer's suggestion that this was an example of egregiously bad police procedure. But that just isn't what actually happened, as you'd think that almost everyone would know.
It's amazing to us, yet not amazing, that the New York Times would publish such a baldly erroneous letter. The absurdity becomes even more instructive when we consider the Times' identity line for the letter writer:
The writer teaches criminal law in the sociology department of George Washington University.
We feel sure that Professor G— is a thoroughly good, decent person. But, with amazing regularity, this is very much the way our modern-day "raps on race" have tended to go.
In this instance, a professor at a major university made a baldly inaccurate statement about a widely-discussed incident. She sent her account to the New York Times, and the brainiac newspaper published it.
Nothing will turn on the obvious error the newspaper chose to publish. But this is the way our contemporary "raps on race" have tended to go, ever since our tribe began performing our deep concern in the aftermath of the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
Listening to Baldwin and Mead, we thought we were possibly hearing a bit of historical bilge, roughly six minutes in. As it turned out, the famous anthropologist had perhaps been sketching a bit of a novel about a Roman emperor's reaction to some "angels."
When we searched on Mead's remarks, it didn't turn out well. That said, our more recent discussions concerning race have tended to be built around the process we described, long ago, in a totally different context, as "the novelization of news."
The letter in yesterday's New York Time made police behavior in a "well-known" incident a bit more egregious. In all honesty, this is very much the way our tribe tends to play, especially on the highest academic and journalistic levels.
We've been playing the game this way ever since an egregious error in the Times triggered nationwide anger in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. (That egregious factual error has never been corrected.)
In all honesty, there is absolutely no sign—none—that the wiring of our flawed human brain will permit our tribe to behave any differently as we pretend to move forward.
Are we able to conduct serious discussions concerning "race?" We'll examine the question all week. As we've long reported, major anthropologists other than Mead all tell us the answer is no.
Concerning such emotional topics, the wiring of our human brains tends to let us see "through a glass [extremely] darkly," these disconsolate experts all say. We'll offer examples all week, reminding you of what we've long said:
It's all anthropology now.
Yesterday's letter was factually wrong. The famously brilliant New York Times rushed the letter to print.
The letter came from a ranking professor. So it very much tends to go with our failing tribe's "raps on race."
Tomorrow: In 1971, the New York Times reviewed the Baldwin/Mead book
Full disclosure: According to our own disconsolate scholarly sources, your lizard brain is telling you that mistakes of the type in yesterdays letter don't actually matter.
You're being told, "It's the thought that counts." Or so our sources allege.