Notes toward a primer on helpful race talk

Talk About Race — By Andrew Grant-Thomas on January 7, 2010 at 11:51 am
Continuing the dialogue from Mike Barber’s article: Words of advice for White would-be writers on race

If last year’s hullaballoos around Eric Holder (“nation of cowards”), Skip Gates, Sonia Sotomayor, the Birther “movement,” Joe Wilson, Van Jones, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, the movie Precious, and so on … not to mention the foreclosure crisis and economic recession, residential and school racial segregation, criminal injustice, wealth inequities, immigration, and more … if these weren’t enough to remind us that race matters and that how we talk about race matters, well, now here’s Lisa Solod Warren (her original Huffington Post piece, entitled “Two Black Role Models Done In By Hubris, has since been removed) and Mike BarberLisaLisa’s legion of critics (see comments), Mike, and Lisa and Mike and Lisa again (see comments) to remind us.

With a respectful nod to Mike’s words of advice, here are a few broad takeaways of my own from all this.

#1: Accusing someone of racism squashes the likelihood of fruitful dialogue like a bug. The merits of a particular case aside, truth is that almost no one embraces the racist label. This is true even in the relatively rare instance where the accused has practically scratched the word into his forehead. Look, if Paul Lanzo, who placed a Klansman mannequin in his restaurant and a sign that read “Obama’s plan for health-care: nigger rig it” in front of it – if that guy can insist with a straight face that he is not a racist, good luck squeezing confessions from the rest of us.

Let’s also acknowledge that the charge isn’t very amenable to proof (to the satisfaction of the accused) or refutation (from the perspective of the accuser). Mind you, context and motivation matter. Many thousands of people attend anti-racism seminars and trainings in which they usefully confront their own biases and privileges. In most contexts, however, the likely result of calling someone a racist is a lot of sound and fury signifying frustration, resentment, more rigidity around race and race talk, and greater reluctance to re-engage in the future: lose-lose all around.

#2: Empathy must go both ways.
Mike, I think you’re half-right: yes, whether we’re white or not, when a lot of people insist we have a problem we owe it to ourselves to listen. However, the empathy must flow in all directions if the conversation is to move anywhere useful. That’s just how most of us are wired. Given our usual understanding of racism as a character-defining, moral blight of heart and mind, it’s not too surprising that most people accused of racism spend a lot of energy defending themselves, rather than “hearing where [their accusers] are coming from,” as Mike and others urge Lisa to do.

Besides, when it comes to inequities and injustices on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, few of us are innocent. Seriously. I’m not saying that we’re equally complicit in generating these injustices or keeping them alive any more than we bear their benefits and burdens equally. But on this point I’m reminded of Cornel West and his answer to the white people eager to assure him that while their old Aunt Eunice had regrettable issues with black people, they themselves had moved beyond that. Brother West’s reply: Oh really? I’m a black man, and if there’s some white supremacy in me, my hunch is there’s still a little in you.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. I just made that up. Here’s another one: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

#3: Not all interpersonal bias is explicit. What’s going on when whites assess neighborhood quality very differently on issues like safety, school quality, and housing values simply on the basis of residents’ race? How do we make sense of the fact that people are more likely to identify as black and be identified by others as black if they’ve been incarcerated, unemployed or poor than if they have not? What to make of the finding that employers are 50 percent more likely to call jobseekers for interviews when their resumes have “white-sounding” names (e.g., Emily and Neil) than when they have “black-sounding” names (Tamika, Rasheed)?

My guess is that relatively few of the people involved in these examples are making the kinds of blatant, ugly racial judgments many of us associate with the likes of Sheriff Joe Arpaio or Paul Lanzo. Nevertheless, many of them, including those who profess consciously egalitarian views and values, surely harbor hidden biases. A large and compelling body of research makes clear that many of us do — along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, age, weight, and more — and that those attitudes are usually more negative than our conscious attitudes. Moreover, they affect everything from how we interpret routine social interactions to how we behave. We know more about the presence and effects of implicit biases than about how to deal with them effectively. Still, we have some insights (see here, here, and here).

#4. It’s not all about interpersonal bias, whether conscious or unconscious. Get this. In 1997, 17 percent of California’s public schools had 15 or more AP courses; 15 percent had none. Whites predominated in the neighborhoods with the AP-rich schools, blacks and Latinos in the areas with the AP-poor schools. In that same year the average GPA of 1st-year students admitted to UCLA was… wait for it, wait for it…. 4.15. So how do you earn a 4.15 on a 4.0 scale? By getting A’s in your honors and AP courses, plus the +1 GPA booster given to grades in advanced classes.

In other words, the kids, mostly black and Latino, attending those no-AP schools had zero chance to earn the GPA of the average student admitted to UCLA; didn’t matter how smart or diligent they were. This isn’t about scheming college admissions officers or evil high school teachers and superintendents (though they all should be alert and responsive to such inequities). It’s mostly about structural interactions between housing markets, K-12 education, and higher education. It’s about how schools draw attendance zones and how they’re funded, about residential zoning, how labor markets operate, and historical legacies of wealth inequality and segregation.

Whether we’re talking about college admissions, health outcomes, or the economic crisis, disparate racial impacts are often driven by these kinds of complex and cumulative structural dynamics. I’m not saying that the interpersonal stuff isn’t in the mix. I’m saying there’s a lot more going on.

#5. Dialogue is not enough. Lisa Solod Warren described Tiger Woods and Barack Obama as two black male role models undone by hubris. Many of her critics called her, or at least her statements, racist. Mike Barber responded with some words of advice to white writers on race. Almost a year ago, Attorney General Eric Holder drew flak for asserting that we Americans are “a nation of cowards” when it comes to race talk. Sonia Sotomayor took grief for suggesting a “wise Latina” with certain life experiences might enjoy judicial advantages over a white male without them. A black professor allegedly said something about a white cop’s momma and was subsequently arrested. A white member of Congress shouted “you lie!” at our first African American president during the latter’s prime time health care address. Race matters. The way we talk about race matters.

However, if implicit and structural biases account for a lot of our grief around race, then what’s most needed are hardcore changes in practice and policy: changing where federally subsidized housing is sited; making school funding equitable, rather than aiming for a gross “equality” of funding; meaningful criminal justice reform; a responsive mindfulness to the distributions of burdens and benefits that attach to “universal” measures like the stimulus package… And insofar as the right kinds of dialogue are needed, they must confront our hidden biases as well as our explicit ones.

The way forward may begin with dialogue. It cannot end there.

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Author: Andrew Grant-Thomas (10 Articles)

Andrew Grant-Thomas

Andrew Grant-Thomas is Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute. He directs the Institute’s internal operations and oversees much of its US-based programming. His substantive interests include structural racism and implicit bias, alliance-building between immigrants and African Americans, African American males and gender dynamics within the African American community, and the promotion of systems thinking through videogames. Andrew serves as Associate Editor of the Institute’s journal, Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts. He also edited Twenty-first Century Color Lines: Multiracial Change in Contemporary America, published in 2008 by Temple University Press. He is a regular contributor to and WOSU radio and sits on the boards of several nonprofit organizations and various social justice initiatives. Andrew came to the Kirwan Institute in February of 2006 from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University where he directed the Color Lines Conference and managed a range of policy-oriented racial justice projects. He received his B.A. in Literature from Yale University, his M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago, and his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago.


  • Mike Barber Mike Barber says:

    Well said. I couldn’t agree more that dialogue is only the beginning. It’s the first milestone of a much longer process. Getting to that first milestone, getting people to engage in an actual constructive dialogue, is still pretty tricky.

    There are very few instances where I will call someone an actual racist. I reserve this moment for those willfully ignorant people who wear their racial hatred like a crown. jsmooth995 (I don’t know his real name… made a video that sums it up best:

    I started writing more on this, but I’ll save it for another article on … I don’t want to fill this section with a 1,600 word comment ;-)

    Since the original publication of your article, further back-and-forth has taken place between Ms. Warren and myself that may be of interest to everyone. It wasn’t the constructive dialogue I had hoped for, but it does at least serve as an example of some archetypical derailing technics often used by people confronted about privilege or aversive discrimination.

    This is in the comments section of the original article here at

    The last thing I would want is for this conversation to get hung up on personalities. None of this was ever about one person. It was about an offensive article someone wrote that went somewhat viral (it was published in the Huffington Post, after all), where that person went wrong with writing the article that likely came out differently than intended, how that person reacted to the criticism, and what lessons there are for others to learn from the whole thing.

    Ms. Warren was certainly not the first and she just as certainly won’t be the last to publish these kinds of articles. We need to keep on top of these things and hold people accountable for them. Allowing blatantly privileged bias to go unchallenged is to allow it to perpetuate.

    Dismantling a racist system is a long term effort. To succeed, we need to use skillful means. To me, that means maintaining a longview, being fearless and staying on target.

  • lisasolod says:

    Mike. Sorry the conversation hasn’t gone as you wanted…. and sorry I haven’t been abject enough in my culpability for you. I think the poster who commented on your article said it for me, though. Even though you professed not to understand what he was talking about.

    How can you, with a straight face, say that the articl and the headline did not refer to me? I mean, really. How many other writers did you mention?

    And lastly, I NEVER presumed to speak for black people. That is where ALL the comments on that subject went wrong AND I answered that. It was a commentary from me. I did not set myself up as a spokeswoman. And once again if Obama is not a role model, then I apologize for thinking he might be. On the other hand, he certainly has been made out to be, else why all the weeping and such at his election. It was an historic event; one I was thrilled with. It certainly made him a hero in a lot of people’s eyes.

    But speaking for the black community? Nope. Just like I don’t speek for ALL women when I write about them. Or ALL men when I write about them. See? Get it?

    Maybe, just maybe, there is a little racial paranoia going on here. But, no,, that would mean I am not only in the wrong for the rest of my life, but am the only one who got overexercised about all of this.

    You want to have a pblic dialogue???? Add in some others who write on race and don’t keep over and over telling me how uncooperative I am for not wishing to engage you again and again and again.

    Look at your own work and see how it was “misinterpreted” and perhaps, just perhaps, you might learn a thing or two. Your holier than though attitude is hard to take.

  • Thanks for the reply, Mike. I absolutely agree about the trickiness of getting the “talk” part right, and yet at least w/Holder and Sotomayor and Gates and all the rest at least the challenge of talk is on our collective radar (even if many insist they DON’T want to talk about race). In contrast, the “walk” part of the equation is barely mentioned.

    But enough doom and gloom. Maybe down the road a bit we need to organize a discussion about some pitfalls of race talk and specific ways around or through them. You started us nicely down that path. If we do, one move I’d want to make is to explicitly ensure that we’re not having a black-white conversation. Reading some of the HuffPost comments, and some of Lisa’s followups, it seems that for some folks the exchange reduced to that, probably because the article that started it all was written by a white woman about “black male role models.” But while the black-white thing has its own particularity, we absolutely mean to be much more expansive than that.

    Til next time.

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