I noted with mild amusement this morning that President Obama is yet again being excoriated on Fox News, this time for daring to say the word "nigger" rather than using the preferred euphemism, "the N-word." But he wasn't being intentionally provocative. He was merely making a point, one that many of us who are educators have also tried to make. I taught media-related courses at Emerson College for 19 years, and one day, I did a lesson on the history of racist language-- including the N-word; and yes, I used the actual word. I showed my students that years ago, even respectable newspapers like the Boston Globe and New York Times used that word on certain occasions, and I discussed common slang expressions that contained the word and were regularly used by white people. But evidently, my lesson offended someone: I was called into the office of the department chair, who basically yelled at me and accused me of being a bigot; he said I must never use that word, not even to teach about it. Similarly, whether you like President Obama or not, his point was accurate: banning a word, even if the effort is well-intentioned, does nothing to solve the problem of racism.
But lest you think only "the left" has a problem with talking about race, you are sadly mistaken. While the language police may operate more prominently in university environments, the thought police can frequently be found plying their trade amongst conservatives. Consider the tragic murders of nine innocent people at prayer in a black church in Charleston SC, an event that certainly proves racism isn't dead: the killer (whose name will NOT be mentioned on this blog-- he wanted publicity, but he isn't going to get any from me) had a racist website, spouted racist views that could have come directly from the Ku Klux Klan (the tired old myth about black men "raping our women" or the equally false assertion that black people are "taking over our country" for example), and he told his friends that he wanted to start a race war. (Given his views, why his father bought him a gun for his birthday remains one of life's mysteries.) Yet when the majority of the Republican presidential candidates were asked to comment, they all said there was no way to know why the killer did it; some conservative commentators said he must be mentally ill, and at least one commentator even said that if members of the church had been armed, this wouldn't have happened (a comment I found truly bizarre: I mean, who would Jesus shoot?). But none of the major Republican candidates was willing to say "Yes, this kid is a racist and we must condemn his actions."
And then there is the confederate battle flag that flies in the South Carolina capitol. Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney condemned it, and I salute him for doing so; but few other Republicans did the same. Even our supposedly moderate Massachusetts governor, Charlie Baker, espoused the approved Republican response-- the people of SC should decide whether to take that flag down. Umm, really? I have heard far too many conservative politicians defending that flag over the past few days, using words like "pride" and "tradition" and "it's a part of who we are." If so, then put it in a museum. Flying it in the capitol of the state sends a message that your state approves of its message of secession and segregation, and is that really the message you want to send in 2015? But hey, at least none of the politicians who defended the confederate flag used the N-word, so they can't be racists, am I right?
I'd really like to see a conversation about race that doesn't deteriorate into political score-settling, name-calling, myth and accusation. Yes, black people have indeed come a long way in the past sixty years. Yes, there are more black doctors, lawyers, professors, businesspeople, members of the government, and members of the media than there used to be. But the stereotypes persist and the problems have not gone away. There are still too many white Americans who believe the worst about black people, especially poor black people. There are still too many myths about black criminality and black welfare recipients (myths that are frequently refuted, yet they are still widely believed). There are still too many politicians eager to grab headlines by blaming the lyrics of rap songs for society's problems. Yes, we can take down that racist flag (and we should), and yes we can avoid using certain words (and we probably should, just to be courteous). But there are difficult discussions that we as a country do not seem eager to have.
When a tragedy occurs, such as the one in Charleston, people are genuinely moved. They express sorrow and bring flowers, but then they retreat to their own neighborhoods and their own set of attitudes: I note, for example, that a large number of churches are either all white or all black; and all too many public schools have also become re-segregated, as have many "gated communities." In our culture, we seem to prefer to live amongst "our own," and other than at work, we don't interact much with "them," especially if they are poor or live in what we perceive as a bad part of town. But if we are serious about wanting a post-racial society, a society where there is equal opportunity and racial minorities are accepted, segregation (even if these days, it's often voluntary) isn't very helpful. As long as there are too few opportunities for people to engage in serious discussion about how to fix what's broken, and as long as our political representatives seem more eager to stay in power than to participate in finding solutions, we will keep going from crisis to crisis, with the usual "I am shocked, shocked" sound-bites from the usual politicians. And we will continue to debate comparatively trivial matters like whether the president was wrong to use a certain word... rather than finding ways to actually bring about the meaningful change that has been needed for far too long.