The shooting and subsequent rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, like the killing of Trayvon Martin or countless incidents before it, will not produce a "national conversation" on race. If Americans can elect a black man president without ever having such a conversation -- we've done so twice -- we're not about to have one over the umpteenth violent death of a young lower-class black male.
Regardless, a conversation -- on any topic -- requires shared predicates and vocabulary. You can't have a conversation about global warming with interlocutors who contend that thousands of scientists around the globe, speaking different languages and working for different governments and unaffiliated institutions, are co-conspirators in a vast enterprise for no apparent gain. You can't have a conversation about government's impact on the economy with people who believe that the federal government spent $800 billion -- dropping it from helicopters or otherwise -- without creating a single job. And you can't have a conversation about race with people who believe that claims of racism are inherently bogus, or who have convinced themselves that Democrats, the president very much included, intentionally encourage black dependence on government for political reasons. The common denominator among those views is a crude form of denial -- a refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of experience outside the universe of talk-radio claptrap.
David Frum's new article in Foreign Affairs echoes Tom Edsall's insight that contemporary politics has become a do-or-die battle over diminishing resources, with older, whiter, conservative Americans determined to prevent the flow of government benefits away from them and toward a younger cohort. For some conservatives, that contest is defined by race. Here is how Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg summed up the racial anxiety of evangelical and Tea Party Republicans (whose perceptions were starkly different from those of moderate Republicans) in focus groups he conducted: "Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities." Thus the crucible of Obamacare. In effect, legions of conservatives have reasoned that the Affordable Care Act is not a response to a problem previously addressed by every other advanced nation; nor is it the culmination of a more than half-century-long project of the Democratic Party -- one that began back when segregationist Democrats controlled the Senate. Instead, they conclude, it is an effort designed to generate dependency and transfer wealth from whites to browns.
In a 2013 poll, 61 percent of white conservatives and 56 percent of whites ages 65 or older agreed that discrimination against whites would increase due to rising racial diversity. That's hardly grounds for a warm embrace of a multiracial future. As Edsall and others have noted, political scientists have found an increase in racial resentment among white conservatives since Obama -- the nation's demographic change incarnate -- was elected.
In a May YouGov poll, only 14 percent of Republicans deemed past discrimination a "major factor" in lower average wealth levels among blacks. (Aggressive impediments to wealth creation were a major theme of Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay that same month.) Only 8 percent of Republicans agreed that discrimination "in getting a quality education" is currently a problem for blacks.
Consider that. In a nation where even middle-class wealth is often inherited, and the fortunes of Rockefellers, Fords, Kennedys and Mellons are famously known to endure through generations, 45 percent of Republicans said that 250 years of enslavement followed by more than a century of legally and socially enforced economic and political disenfranchisement are simply "not a factor" impeding black wealth creation. Another 35 percent of Republicans polled said that the history of discrimination was only a "minor factor." So 350 years of official discrimination followed by decades of diminishing, but still discernible, racism produced no great economic ills.
You can impose all the caveats on this you like. Blacks, too, possess varying degrees of racial animus. And liberals, of course, have their own blinders, delusions and prejudices. But a belief that white advantage in American society -- including a median household wealth gap of around 20-to-1 between whites and blacks -- is exclusively a product of the character failings of blacks is a kind of lunacy. Americans frequently dismiss turmoil in the Middle East by noting that religious and tribal tensions there were centuries in the making. But here, massive barriers to black success disappeared when Lyndon Baines Johnson signed civil-rights legislation?
Two months after Obama's pivotal, political March 2008 speech on race, Washington Post reporter Kevin Merida wrote a story about Obama campaign volunteers encountering explicit racism while soliciting support. When Merida sought comment from the campaign, it responded with a bromide about "the core decency, kindness, and generosity of Americans from all walks of life." The deflection was political, yet honest in its way. Indeed, we are mostly a decent, kind and generous folk. Just don't try to have a conversation with us about race.
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