There are conventionally agreed-upon meanings that differ from the words used to express them. If you are wearing a watch and someone asks, "Do you have the time?," technically it would be answering the question to just say "yes" and walk on.
There is a convention that "Do you have the time?" is taken as a request for the time to be shared. In this vein, what does it mean when people say, as they have been in the wake of Barack Obama's marvelous speech last week, that there needs to be a national "conversation" about race?
Nominally, the conversation would be simply an exchange of impressions, but that is not what people mean, even if they say it is.
One must ask them: to what extent will this "conversation" entail whites saying that they are tired of being called racists and being policed for ever more abstract shades of racist bias, with blacks acknowledging this and resolving to do it as little as possible?
Many would answer "not at all," many "very little." And the number of people who see this "conversation" as incomplete without the above would be roughly nil.
Now, we ask the same people: to what extent will this "conversation" entail blacks teaching whites about institutional racism, and its meaning that the plight of black America remains whites" responsibility despite the existence of one-shots like Colin Powell?
I suspect most would answer "to a massive extent." The number of people who would see this "conversation" as incomplete without the above would be decidedly vast.
This means that when people say that we need a "conversation" on race, what they really mean is that white America needs to learn that racism still exists, that black people are correct to see it as defining their existence, and that a moral debt remains unpaid until all eyes are on black America the way they were for a spell in the sixties.
After all, if these people were really interested in a "conversation" on race, then they would understand that America is engaged in one year-round. What have the discussions of "macaca," Sean Bell, Don Imus, Michael Richards, Jena, and Barack Obama been about? Glass-blowing?
What these people want is not a conversation but a conversion. A dramatic prospect indeed, kind of like "funerals" for the N-word.
But in the real world, the response to Mr. Obama"s speech has made it painfully clear that the "conversation" is never going to happen.
Or, better, the only conversation that"s going to happen already is. It is a sometimes messy exchange, conservative and liberal going head to head, gradually settling on a centrist position. Namely, racism must be reviled, the government can do things to help people, but much of what ails black people today is too abstractly connected to racism for whites to feel guilty about it anymore. That centrist position is no longer heresy among blacks or whites.
But a national teach-in? Just look at what every second commentator on Mr. Obama"s speech took away from it, or the letters sections lately of any city newspaper.
Mr. Obama made the best speech in 20 years, and countless intelligent people"s take on it: "Jeremiah Wright is a racist like David Duke. Attending his church is embracing racism. How dare Barack Obama compare his own grandmother to that evil Reverend Wright. What a two-face."
Or try Maureen Dowd in the Times last week. Mr. Obama gently explains the sources of resentment in people like Rev. Wright, who grew up under Jim Crow. Ms. Dowd's take on the reverend? He's a "whackadoodle." Like a cartoon character with a picture of a screw and a ball drawn over his head with a squawky "wah-waah" on the soundtrack.
Ms. Dowd is, I am told, an intelligent person. Yet to her, the resentments of black people of a certain vintage are, if not as "whackadoodle" as noisy Jeremiah Wright's, dismissible. She doesn't care.
Should she? That's a different question: ours is does she? She doesn't, partly because the question as to whether she should is now so abstract. Anyone who can think of a conversion process that would make her care needs to speak up, because it would be an unprecedented advance in the frontiers of social psychology and therapeutic praxis.
I am referring to Ms. Dowd as representative of a widely shared weariness among whites of wrapping their heads around the endless nuances of "the race thing." It's interesting to speculate what would happen if this "conversation" (i.e. conversion) happened, but it's idle fantasyand black people don't need white people to "realize" anything in order to get ahead anyway.
What black people really need is for certain people to rechannel their energy from incantations about a "conversation" ever just out of reach into observing and publicizing the uplift programs making the most difference in black communities. Before long, we wouldn"t even need the actual conversation about race we're having right now.
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