Race Talk

keeping up with the "national conversation on race"

Improving how we talk about race; more on the Sherrod story

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The Shirley Sherrod story continues to generate excellent commentaries on why we have so much trouble talking about race. Interestingly, what emerges from these reflections is that some of the key dynamics shaping the story have little to do with race directly. Obama himself, perhaps not surprisingly, emphasizes this in blaming our “media culture” for the hysteria. John Harris and Jim VandeHei, writing for Politic.com, see the story as representing “the new normal” in the most recent phase of “nonstop ideological war,” one fueled by “the emergence of an industry—a political-media complex—for which ideological conflict is central to the business model.” Rem Riedder, editor of American Journalism Review, claims the “lessons of the Shirley Sherrod fiasco” are for journalists “to slow down, to check things out, to get the full story before posting or publishing or acting.” In this light, we can see a thread here that links back to other sensational stories like the nooses in Jena, LA, and the Duke rape case. In this view, the racial component of the story is almost a subplot. Even Eugene Robinson’s scathing assessment of race-baiting in this story—“these allegations of anti-white racism are being deliberately hyped and exaggerated because they are designed to make whites fearful”—acknowledges the partisan dynamic at work here: “this is really about tearing down Barack Obama.” So is it about left and right, rather than black and white?

Recognizing the ostensibly non-racial component of race stories is important to understanding how our “national conversation” on race does and does not work. Certainly, we have to acknowledge a primary characteristic of public discussions of race: it is manipulated to score political points. But race only carries this potential because it remains a taboo topic. I use “taboo” here in the technical sense of the term in anthropology, to characterize the belief that contact with a prohibited object means something bad will happen. This is well-illustrated with anxious references to “the n-word,” and it is certainly on display with the rapid firing and subsequent frantic effort to rehire Sherrod. Matt Bai, in putting this story in a larger context of U.S. political discourse, asks: “Why haven’t we moved beyond the old, stultifying debate in the age of Obama?” Part of the answer is that we’ve yet to recognize that this requires a double process, simultaneously grappling with our culture-bound anxieties about race while also understanding how they fuel partisan jousting. Additionally, we have to understand another larger dynamic at work here lies in the shifting line between private and public in American life, and how this, in turn, draws on fraught concerns over the changing contours of the “mainstream” of public discourse. More on that soon.

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Written by jhartiganj

July 26, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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