Thursday, February 19, 2009

Are We a Nation of Cowards?

Just as we get on a roll of questions about race, Eric Holder, our new Attorney General has made a wonderfully provocative claim -- we are a nation of cowards,

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards."

Is he correct, and either way what accounts for it? I think there are five possibilities. The first is simply denial, ignore it and it might go away. This was evident in a number of discussions on race that I heard during the election season. A lot of the racial fear about an Obama presidency was based around concerns about retribution. We deny our horrible racist traditions, but when there is the possibility of a minority taking real power the first thought is "I'm in trouble if it's payback time." When someone says, let's look towards the future, not play the blame game about the past, it is usually because they are to blame about the past. We are cowards afraid of admitting what is true because admiting it would force us to change it and we are afriad of the consequences of making things right.

The second is that we are still a nation of racists, but one in which social norms have changed such that making our views clear is subject to social stigma. It's not that we are afraid to talk about it, it's that we know we shouldn't say what we would say if we decided to speak freely. We are cowards afraid of speaking our minds.

The third is we are not afraid, merely disinterested. The notion of race has become so muddled and complex that the old black/white dichotomy doesn't make sense any more. We see the conversations as having nothing to do with contemporary life. It's so 20th century. We are not cowards, we're post-racial.

The fourth is not that we're afraid, just tired of it. There is a cultural exhaustion on the part of white people with regard to race. Reagan played brilliantly on white guilt exhaustion and we've not gotten our energy back. It's been on the agenda so long, we just got sick of it.

The fifth is that we are cowards, not because we don't want to talk about it, but we're afraid because we don't know how to do it. The PC movement of the 80s and 90s made us so touchy about innocent sentiments and legitimate questions being interpreted as offensive and bigoted that we simply try to avoid the landmine altogether. since we don't know how to do it well and since we are afraid that even touching the subject will blow up in our faces, better to simply let it go.

So, are we cowards and if so which of these is the most operative element? Or is it something else?