In a City Journal essay that will be much discussed, I’m sure, the linguist John McWhorter (who is black) says a black scholar who won’t let go of the idea that we can’t enjoy the ice-cream truck jingle “Turkey In The Straw” without reflecting on its racist roots represents an African-American craving for something that cannot exist. Excerpt:
America “doesn’t want to talk about race,” we’re told—but the only reasonable interpretation of that claim, in a country that talks about race 24/7, is that, actually, America doesn’t want to talk about racism. And then, we are also to understand that somehow a grand talk about that would result in a transformation of black America that has been elusive to the most devoted people for 50 years. At the end of the day, this is not so much an idea as an incantation, as we see partly in that coded use of the word race instead of racism, almost as if we were dealing in a code, a liturgy.
I do not charge that the code-talkers are insincere; much less do I propose the tired notion that they are “race hustlers.” However, the idea that America needs a grand conversation about race remains gestural rather than pragmatic. Linguists have a term, phatic, for utterances that only serve a social function, rather than conveying information. “How are you?” is the classic example: one is less interested in knowing the answer than in simply acknowledging the presence of the other person. The idea of a national conversation on race—which quick reflection confirms could never happen and would solve no problem, anyway—only makes sense as phatic. The content of the utterance is less the point than its intent.
To be a concerned black person, many have internalized, requires harboring a feeling that something large-scale is just out of our reach; that we exist as a people eternally unfulfilled; that a shoe has yet to drop. Our identities, so battered by 350 years of brutality and dismissal, feel incomplete. We seek a true sense of nobility, and we find it in the ironically comforting status of the underdog.
Make no mistake—we must protest where it is called for. I reject the “black bourgeoisie” argument that we must quietly wait things out while keeping our chinny-chins up. But today it’s increasingly difficult to characterize black America’s problems as a matter of a single problem or cause, in the way that desegregation was. The efforts that today’s problems require can’t create an identity as easily. One seeks something larger, something that, crucially for us with our history, heals. Hence the idea of something as large-scale as an ever-elusive, overarching conversation America somehow “never” has. The concept has an operatic sense of catharsis in it. It’s even true that some Americans think race plays less of a role in black people’s fate than it does. None of this, however, belies the fact that what is being proposed is a kind of stage-managing of social change that no human group has ever sought—and which, I submit, black America needn’t seek, either.
I suspect that civil rights leaders before, roughly, 1966 would be perplexed by today’s calls for a conversation about race, especially one that imagines all Americans taking and passing some kind of national history test on institutional racism, past and present. The old heroes fought against segregation and discrimination because it was impossible for any but a few black people to get ahead otherwise. But Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, and the others did not seek a perfect society. Today, we seem to be doing just that: we cannot be whole as long as nonblack Americans are going about with their summer snacks, unmindful of our past. But are human societies ever so exquisitely mindful? Could they be?
Read the whole thing, especially if you plan to comment.