GATES ON RACE: Don Lemon tried to discuss this topic!

FRIDAY, MARCH 11, 2022

Discussing this topic is hard: We're prepared to admit it:

By the time we finished Professor Gates' guest essay, we weren't fully sure what he'd said.

The guest essay appeared in Sunday's New York Times. It seemed to concern an important topic—to advance an important belief.

"We need a new language for talking about race." That's what the headline said.

We're strongly inclined to agree with that view. But in what would that language consist?

Early on, Professor Gates and his colleague, Professor Curran, offered a nugget statement with which we're inclined to agree. But what did the professors mean when they advanced this view?

"The fact that race is a social invention and not a biological reality cannot be repeated too much."

We're strongly inclined to agree with that view. But what did the professors mean when they advanced that statement? 

We didn't think their meaning was clear by the end of their highly erudite guest essay. For today, we'll offer two thoughts about that unfortunate state of affairs.

We'll start with CNN's Don Lemon. 

Back on February 2, Lemon spoke with Cornel West and Yascha Mounk about one of the same foundational concepts found in Sunday's guest essay. Sadly enough, the discussion had been triggered by the flap about Whoopi Goldberg's claim that the Holocaust had nothing to do with race. 

In our view, Goldberg's statement had been strikingly unsophisticated, but her meaning had been easy  to decipher. In our view, the furious discussion which followed wasn't a whole lot more helpful or informed than the comment which set off the flap.

On the brighter side, Lemon had convened a star-studded, two-person panel. West is late of Princeton and Harvard; Mounk is at Harvard today.

By the standards of cable news, this was a brainiac panel. And sure enough! After Goldberg's statement was dissected, Lemon moved on to this:

LEMON (2/2/22): The interesting thing is that we have this idea, what I said earlier, this sort of modern idea about what race is. What exactly is race? Is it a social construct? Many people see it as color. Is it something that's visible? What exactly is it? 

Let's have that conversation. We'll take a break, and we'll talk about it on the other side. We'll be right back.


"What is race?" the cable star asked. "Is it a social construct?"

(Also, "Is it something that's visible? What exactly is it?" Lemon now said.)

Already, our youthful analysts were moaning and tearing their hair. But even we were  surprised by the muddled discussion which took place after commercials had aired.

After the commercial break, Professor West was forced to discuss Goldberg's comment again. But then, the rubber seemed to hit the road as Lemon came out with this:

LEMON: Race is a social construct. Do you guys agree with that or disagree with that? Yascha?

Lemon had asked if race is a social construct without attempting to explain what that term might mean—what a social construct is.

Monck was asked to respond to this fuzzy question first. As he responded, Mounk seemed to assume that everyone pretty much shares an understanding of that murky term.

We're willing to guess that isn't the case. Below, you see what happened next in this wonderfully muddled discussion:

MOUNK (continuing directly): Yes, I agree with that. I mean, I think that people think about social construct as something that I have—you know, I have something that's completely real and biological, or it has no basis in reality at all. And that's the wrong way to think about it. 

Race is a social construct not because


LEMON: It is a social construct, but there are real world consequences for it. People died because of their race even though it is something that people constructed for.

By now, several analysts were catatonic—were locked in thousand-yard stares. Little clarity had emerged. Mounk continued as shown:

MOUNK (continuing directly): No. And of course, there are certain ethnic differences that you can see. You can mostly guess whether somebody has ancestors in Asia or somebody has ancestors in Africa or somebody has ancestors in Europe. 

The way in which we think about the difference between races is socially constructed. And that's what's relevant in this context.

It isn't so much that race is a social construct. It's more that the way in which we think about the difference between races is socially constructed. 

Also, you can usually guess where a person's ancestors lived. You can guess that they lived in Africa, or that they lived in Asia.

Mounk continued on from there. Mercifully, his computer soon froze, so Lemon threw to West:

LEMON: I think Yascha froze. Do you want to continue with that, Professor West? Is this what construct—

WEST: No, what this I think—

LEMON: But have our definitions of racism changed over the years?

WEST: —of the social construct, Brother Don. 

One, it is institutionalized and legalized. It takes on a life of its own, you see. So white supremacy is a construct, but you ascribed in the laws and ascribed in how you perceive black people and ascribe in the attacks on black beauty and black intelligence, same is true with indigenous people, and Spanish, brown, and so forth. it gets institutionalized in your society.

It isn't just race which is a social construct. White supremacy is a construct too, whatever a construct is.

West's oration continued from there. We're showing you what the CNN transcript says, but we were amazed, as we watched in real time, by how disjointed and useless this rambling, three-way pseudo-discussion actually was.

 Watching at home, we weren't sure we'd ever seen a muddier pseudo-discussion. We weren't surprised by the relative haplessness of the moderator. But West and Mounk are leading academics, and they seemed completely unable to discuss this topic in a way which might be subject to understanding and coherent paraphrase.

Is race a social construct, Lemon asked. Things went straight sideways from there.

We were truly surprised by the depth of the muddle which emerged from Lermon's muddled questions. Innocently, Lemon had wanted to know if race is "a social construct." We were surprised by the lack of clarity two ranking professors were prepared to provide.

In their guest essay in the Sunday Times, Gates and Curran started out with this very concept:

It can't be repeated often enough. Race is a social invention.

We're inclined to agree with that statement—but what did they mean by their statement? By the time we finished Sunday's guest essay, we had no strong sense that we actually knew.

Tomorrow, we'll tell you what we suspect they meant, and we'll try to suggest where their discussion falls short. Also, we'll visit another member of the actual greatest generation—Mary Frances Early, the first black person to receive a degree from the University of Georgia.

Early is 85 years old; she earned that degree in 1962. We'll quote her from this C-Span tape as she describes what she and her peers once believed about matters of this very important type. 

According to Professor Gates, we need a new language for talking about race. We completely agree with that statement—and we think that important new language might take us back to some older ideas.

Final note:

We said we'd share two thoughts today, We only got to one.

Tomorrow: Remembering Jesse B. Semple


  1. "By the time we finished Professor Gates' guest essay, we weren't fully sure what he'd said."

    Oh dear. We've never seen Professor Gates' guest essay, and yet we know exactly what he'd said: that English language is a tool of WHITE SUPREMACY. Along with everything else on this Earth.

    How come you still can't figure it out, dear Bob?

  2. For discussions to be productive, they have to have scope and remain focused on that scope.

    Defining terms is a great place to start. Because if that is not done, and participants have differing ideas on what those terms mean, the subsequent discussion is likely doomed to fail from the outset.

  3. The most simple-minded and straightforward way to decide upon race is to use skin color. But then there are the people who are very light and "pass" and those who are not African American but are dark and who are miscategorized as brown or black. So that is not a foolproof method, and never has been.

    Somerby thinks that complex things can be explained simply and that they should be made crystal clear in an essay or a TV interview, when there isn't space or time for that to happen.

    If Gates' method were used to classify people, we would all need badges to identify our ancestry. That happens in the film Gattaca and it is ugly, perhaps uglier than the primitive concept of race. And it serves no purpose in everyday life whatsoever. In contrast, the concept of race did serve a purpose -- it structured social interactions by creating a society hierarchy. Today, material possessions (clothing, jewelry, cars) do that, as does one's accent, haircut, dentistry and conformance to etiquette, all markers of SES and class.

    We are not all one big happy family of man. We will not be, even if Gates revises how we discuss race. In the times before race was created (to justify slavery), we used economic markers to define membership in a social strata. That isn't going to stop.

    I suspect that Somerby and conservatives are wishing to do away with race so that they can also do away with the idea of reparations or restitution for the wrongs done during slavery and perpetuated by our institutionalized disadvantage to those with brown and black skin. They wish to forget the bad old days and go on with a system in which white privilege gives a boost to those who are white. This is their motivation for avoiding conversations about race. It will inevitably come around to changing the disadvantages and they don't want to do that.

    Perhaps Somerby sees Gates' ideas as a reset to race relations. If so, I doubt that will be acceptable to those who have experienced centuries of disadvantage, passed down from one generation to the next. Who benefits from such a reset? Not black and brown people.

    Somerby has never dealt with any of these issues, except to complain that he thinks the microaggressions are not real and that black people have exaggerated their mistreatment. Asians too -- recall the essay in which he said that the female Asian lawyer was manufacturing a grievance because she was worried about her elderly mother in Chinatown in the midst of a pandemic of attacks on Asians. This is Somerby's attitude about current racism. But white people do not get to tell black people that time is up and they are going to ignore race-based complaints going forward. That is not a white privilege. It is not even Gates' privilege, as hard as he has worked to find his white side.

    Somerby himself seems to feel victimized by the complexity of some things in this world. He whines that they are not explained clearly enough, that ideas are murky or fuzzy because he doesn't get them. But he also complains that there exist other people who do understand such things. He calls them frauds and cons and suspects that they are deliberately complicating things and must dumb them down for everyone, or else they are behaving badly. Where on earth does such a belief have any reality?

  4. I suspect that Somerby and conservatives are wishing to do away with race

    I am so wishing. IMO focusing on race is harmful to everyone. When I was working in the historically anti-semitic insurance industry, I "did away with" religion to the extent possible. That is, I never mentioned my religion and tried to never behave differently from Christians.

    I found Christians around me fully accepting of me. IMO blacks and Asians who behave like the white people around them will also find their colleagues to be fully accepting, with only a very few exceptions. That's been my experience in places where I worked.

    1. I always knew you were a self-hating Jew.

      There's nothing special about the insurance industry, jackass. The country as a whole has been historically anti-semitic.

    2. If you pretend to be Christian so that people will like you, what is left of your own identity and integrity?

  5. Just came across this from Foucault today: "The purpose of history, guided by genealogy, is not to discover the roots of our identity but to commit itself to its dissipation."

  6. Prevalence of Prejudice-Denoting Words in News Media Discourse: A Chronological Analysis

    The usage of the word "racist" went up 638% between 2010 and 2019.

    Does anyone think the country became six times more racist in that time period? Or could this be a case of the tail wagging the dog?

    And is it a coincidence that the trend begins around the time of Occupy Wall Street?

    1. The usage of the word "racist" went up 638% between 2010 and 2019*

      *in the NY Times

    2. It's striking that usage of the word "racist" went up sharply during a period when electing Barack Obama proved that the country was NOT racist.

    3. "And is it a coincidence that the trend begins around the time of Occupy Wall Street?"

      The 1% used race to distract the people from unfairness of the so-called "Great Recession" and the well-documented and massive plutocratic theft of wealth from the working class over the last 50 years.

    4. Divide and rule. The oldest trick in the book. Still to this day gullible rubes mock Trump supporters and conservatives as racists who could never have economic anxiety in the most economically lopsided gilded age of modern history not knowing by doing so they are reinforcing plutocratic dominance for years to come.

    5. 6:58,
      You know of a Republican who understands economics? Do tell.

    6. Tried to overthrow the U.S. Capitol because black people's votes counted in an election, after supporting Trump's HUGE tax break for corporations and the rich.
      Don't call them "racists". They're economically anxious.
      Let's face it, TDH needs better trolls.

    7. It's not true that the reason they invaded the capital was because of black people's votes though.

    8. Nah, it's exactly as the psycho-dembot @10:21 confessed: because dead people's votes were counted.

  7. "According to Professor Gates, we need a new language for talking about race. We completely agree with that statement—and we think that important new language might take us back to some older ideas."

    What good old days does Somerby long for? The ones where blacks never got out of line or uppity because their masters ruled over them with whips? The one where servants were to be seen but not heard? The one where everyone knew his place and the slaves were happy singing spirituals on the old plantation?

    1. It used to be impolite to ask someone where they were from, who their ancestors were, what their ethnicity was, much less hint about what their race might be. But since black people were excluded from polite society, the rumors were always behind people's backs, about someone dusky in their family tree. Is that the conversation about race that Somerby longs for?

    2. I agree with you that he is a racist.