Some questions can best be answered with another question.
Consider, for example, the question that popped up with prominence as President Joe Biden finished his first 100 days last week: Are we a racist country?
Before I answer that question, I want to know, “How do you define ‘racist’?”
That’s not a cop-out or whitewash — or colorwash — of the issue. Rather it is my attempt to find out in advance whom I am about to offend and why.
Our perceptions of race and racism are based on our experience, which makes the question so vexing, since all of our experiences are so different.
It is why, for example, so many people say we haven’t made any racial progress since the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, and so many others say we’ve made all the progress we need.
“After all,” I have heard, “you got a Black president. What more do you want?”
The first step in effective communication is to share a common language, and few words divide us as much as the R-word does, thanks to our nation’s still-unresolved conflicts over race.
That’s why it was no surprise to me that Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott all answered “No” to the question — and then qualified their answers in distinctly different ways.
“No, I don’t think the American people are racist,” Biden told NBC’s “Today” show before his speech to Congress. “... But I think the overhang from all of the Jim Crow (laws), and before that slavery, have had a cost, and we have to deal with it.”
“Hear me clearly, America is not a racist country,” said Scott, the Senate’s only Black Republican, in his party’s response to the president’s address to Congress — although he managed to find discrimination lingering on the left. “I’ve also experienced a different kind of intolerance,” he said. “I get called ‘Uncle Tom’ and the N-word — by progressives. By liberals.”
Indeed, a number of examples piled up on Twitter that evening as the hashtag “Uncle Tim,” a takeoff on “Uncle Tom,” went viral. Some of my conservative readers demanded that I denounce such racially inflammatory insults. I do. I’m also waiting to hear similar outrage on the right over the Trump supporters who invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
But such self-destruction on the right doesn’t let the left off the hook. Before Biden’s speech, the “Ragin’ Cajun” James Carville, Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign consultant, made headlines by praising Biden for avoiding the “messaging problem” that “wokeness” has brought to Democrats.
“We have to talk about race,” Carville told Vox. “We should talk about racial injustice. What I’m saying is, we need to do it without using jargon-y language that’s unrecognizable to most people — including most Black people, by the way — because it signals that you’re trying to talk around them.”
No, as Carville said, he’s not into “faculty lounge” politics.
What’s that? “You ever get the sense that people in faculty lounges in fancy colleges use a different language than ordinary people?” he said. “They come up with a word like ‘Latinx’ that no one else uses.”
He was referring to studies such as last summer’s Pew Research Center poll that found only 1 in 4 Hispanic adults has heard the term and fewer than 3% said they used it.
“Or they use a phrase like ‘communities of color,’ ” he continued. “I don’t know anyone who speaks like that. I don’t know anyone who lives in a ‘community of color.’ I know lots of white and Black and brown people and they all live in … neighborhoods.”
Blunt talk can bristle, but I share Carville’s dismay with the activism that brought us “cancel culture,” “critical race theory” and “equity” — as a substitute for simply “equality.” Sometimes the lesser-known word works fine, but in political speech it also can be helpful to remember George Orwell’s wise warnings against “doublespeak” that tends to confuse more than clarify.
That’s why I think Biden and Harris wisely have avoided slogans like “defund the police,” which easily are hijacked by the right to discredit legitimate reform efforts, even as they fail to offer alternatives of their own.
Instead, despite Scott’s verbal shots at the left, congressional Democrats have been working with him productively, he says, to lead negotiations with the Dems to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
Maybe the question of whether we are a racist nation or not can be put aside — while both parties try to make it less racist. Here’s hoping.
E-mail Clarence Page at email@example.com.