Since the exoneration of George Zimmerman on July 13, we have witnessed a heightened awareness of racism, a heightened openness to discuss the truth of racism, a heightened enthusiasm to drive racism out of the core of American institutions and thought. Racism talk is flying around our nation, buzzing in the ears of sweating conservatives, annoying them to no end.
It is a fascinating rhetorical strategy conservatives are using to shoo away the circulating conversation on racism. They are not merely saying racism is now inconsequential. They are not merely blaming the victim.
Conservatives say racism talk is breeding disunity, disunity between the races. It is driving the races apart. Racism is not causing disunity. It is talk of racism causing disunity, they say.
This is their common comeback to Americans protesting against Zimmerman, the verdict, and mass incarceration. Time and time again over the last two months, the anti-Zimmerman protesters have been labeled racist, are told they are polarizing America.
Oprah Winfrey shared her thoughts on the case recently while promoting her new film, The Butler. “Trayvon Martin paralleled Emmett Till,” she said. “In my mind. Same thing.”
The next day, fill-in anchor Jesse Watters responded to Oprah’s comments toward the end of Fox News’ The Five. “It was a big missed opportunity for Oprah Winfrey,” he said. “I was expecting her to kind of take the high road and elevate the conversation and bring the country forward and add a little unity here. But instead she made this atrocious analogy, and I am a little disappointed in Oprah.”
Michael Meyers of the NY Civil Rights Coalition, as a guest on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News, said Oprah’s “comments are so outrageous, so racially offensive, such racial rhetoric, that I say she is now engaging in idiocy and racial poison.” The racism is not the poison, according to Meyers. By talking about racism, Oprah Winfrey is poisoning America.
Glenn Beck called Oprah’s statement “offensive” and “evil.” Beck never called the ideas, the racial profiling that led to an unarmed teenager being killed evil. He never called the Zimmerman verdict, which demoralizes the value of Black teenage male life, offensive to the mothers, fathers, siblings and friends of these teens.
Oh, and for charges of racism in Washington, conservatives are using this comeback, too. In early August, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told KNPR radio that it is obvious Republicans are “doing everything they can to make” President Barack Obama fail. “And I hope, I hope — and I say this seriously — I hope that’s based on substance and not the fact that he’s African-American.”
National Republic Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring immediately took to twitter to call Reid’s comments “offensive” and “insane.”
Tea Party Senator Tim Scott, R-S.C., one of two African-Americans in the U.S. Senate, also issued a rejoinder to Reid. “I am sincerely disappointed by continued attempts to divide the American people by playing to the lowest common denominator. Instead of engaging in serious debate about the failed policies of this administration … Democrats are once again trying to hide behind a smokescreen.”
Racism talk is a smokescreen, the great divider of the American people, so say conservatives. It is a compelling talking point because it is undeniably true. Talk of racism does polarize America, pitting racists against anti-racists, victim blamers against the victims’ supporters, the ignorers against the acknowledgers of racism.
Racism talk also angers and alienates a large segment of Americans — liberals and conservatives, Whites and many non-Whites — who believe in the mythology of colorblindness, reverse racism and race neutrality. It is easy to persuade people that racism talk is divisive if they believe racism to be history or insignificant. It is not difficult to convince people that racism talk is offensive, is setting America back, if they believe a post-racism society would be colorblind.
Talk of racism also rushes feelings of guilt and anger to the fore. We all know how difficult it is for Americans to talk about race. When conservatives proclaim racism talk breeds disunity, racism talk is the problem, as guarded emotional creatures, we want to agree and end the conversation, and some of us do. Like when our abusers say talking about their abuse hinders our relationships, drives wedges between us — that we need to be more positive; the abuse talk (not the abuse) is our problem — we want to agree and be quiet, and some of us do.
The abuse, the racism, must be voiced and discussed, no matter how hard, no matter who is alienated. When conservatives say those voices are causing disunity, there is no reason to deny the truth. In fact, it has always been true. During slavery, slaveholders told abolitionists their voices were breeding disunity. And they were. During the Jim Crow era, segregationists told Martin Luther King Jr. his voice was breeding disunity. And it was. Racism talk still breeds disunity.
Our response today has to be the same it has always been: We prefer a “positive peace which is the presence of justice” to a “negative peace which is the absence of tension,” as King wrote in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, a few months before the March on Washington.
“Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal,” he continued, “so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi (formerly Ibram H. Rogers) is an assistant professor of Africana studies at University at Albany — SUNY. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972. Follow on Twitter