Race Talk

keeping up with the "national conversation on race"

Racial Killings

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An intriguing dynamic of our conversation about race is how we settle upon examples from a wash of news stories to stand for how and why race matters today or to answer a more abstract question, which a radio interview recently put to me: what’s the state of race relations today? The “conversation” designation references both that a particular incident is worth talking about in terms of its wider relevance to the nation and that it’s part of a series of examples that follow from one another. These stories are hardly random, yet their representative status is neither certain or given. What makes one story either merely an anecdote or reliable data? That’s part of what the conversation is about—we argue over how representative any particular incident is to a range of open questions about the importance of race. But such determinations are not easily made and are bound up with a dense tangle of questions of etiquette and convention, political dynamics between liberal/conservatives, and often unstated but perhaps newly unsettled assumptions about racial identities. That’s why it will be interesting to see whether or how the two most recent disturbing examples of racial violence get talked about: Omar Thornton and a white serial killer in Michigan.

Thornton killed eight coworkers at the Hartford Distributors warehouse in Manchester, Connecticut, explaining to a state trooper that he did it because “this place here is a racist place.” The killer still on the loose in the Flint area is a muscular white man who has killed 5 people and wounded 8 in knife attacks. All but one of his victims was black raising the suggestion that these are racially motivated killings.

Mostly, in the conversation, we focus maniacally on what’s been said; but with these two stories it will “speak volumes” if they continue to generate little or no commentary. That’s because these are enormously volatile incidents, but to make a case for their larger relevance is risky and potentially irresponsible. Especially given the intensity of national arguments involving race that have surged this summer, along with a host of other partisan conflicts and arguments. As Peggy Noonan observes, “America is at a risk of boiling over.” Our public discourse could easily become far more riotous if either of these stories, now teetering on the brink between “regional” and “national” news (The Root is asking why the Flint story is not national), are taken up in the broader discussions about the relevance of race today.

My good friend and colleague, John Hoberman, talks about the “threshold of civilized discourse” as the limit-point to which a commentator will go in race-baiting; perhaps implying certain racist ideas or narratives, but not actually making such statements explicitly. Whether or how these two stories get spun as representative in the media will perhaps give us some negative evidence of the enduring strength of the decorum that informs and constrains our public discourse on race. In that regard, the veritable silence around Omar Thornton is deafening. This won’t necessarily be a celebratory matter, if the stories don’t get mobilized in racial polemics, since they do raise important issues, first about enduring forms of racism and secondly about the terrifying history of violence by whites to maintain racial dominance or inspired by racial anxiety. But these topics are difficult to talk about at the best of times. At the moment, though, Thornton’s story is not gaining any traction. I only came across one Fox report, denying the possibility that racism was a root of his crimes, rather that demonizing blacks as seeking racial vengeance; as a counter point, I found one blog reading the story Thornton as evidence that “racism is here to stay.”

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Written by jhartiganj

August 8, 2010 at 9:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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