There's been a bit of a kerfuffle in the media over Attorney General Eric Holder's maladroit criticism of what he perceives to be the reluctance of Americans to talk about race:
"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," said Holder, the nation's first black attorney general.
Race issues continue to be a topic of political discussion, Holder said, but "we, as average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race."
He urged people of all races to use Black History Month as a chance for frank talk about racial matters.
"It is an issue we have never been at ease with and, given our nation's history, this is in some ways understandable," Holder said. "If we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us."
I say Holder was "maladroit" because "cowards" hardly seems the appropriate word to use in this context. People don't talk about race because they're afraid, rather they don't talk about race, at least in racially mixed company, for the same reason they often decline to talk about politics and religion in mixed company: They don't wish to offend nor do they care to abase themselves.
Discussions about race can go badly for two reasons. First, many people don't know what to say. What's there to talk about, exactly? Most whites don't think much about race and they read even less. It's not something they're interested in, particularly, and to expect them to engage in a conversation about it is like someone who never reads the financial pages being pressed to engage in a discussion on the global banking system.
Moreover, a lot of whites feel that any conversation with a black interlocutor is only going to wind up with the black venting about white racism and oppression. At this point the white knows that he'll have two options. He can either nod his or her head in agreement, which many see as an act of servility, or he/she can take issue with the charges, which leads to the second reason such conversations go wrong.
As soon as a white person disagrees with a black person about race, many whites are convinced, their racial bona fides will be called into question and suspicions will be raised about latent racism lurking in the white person's heart. If the disagreement continues then the suspicions mount until the R-word is trotted out and that's the end of that conversation.
Holder wants Americans to have "frank conversations" about race, but it's not clear to me that that would be a good thing. Genuinely frank conversations, I'm afraid, are too often too painful for one party or the other to endure with equanimity.
Better to avoid the unpleasantness altogether, many conclude, by simply not talking about it. That's not cowardice, it's good manners.RLC