Race and Rhetoric

Thursday, 3rd August 2017

From Aug. 3, 2017


This is a good overview of the Tommy Curry affair at Texas A&M. Similar stories are happening to other non-white academics across the US. The cowardly backlash against people like this accomplishes its task, which is to take the focus off of the very crucial and urgent questions that are being raised about race in the US. “When is it ok to kill white people?” is not an incitement to violence, but it raises in a very pointed manner the fact that blacks are killed by police and others at an alarming rate, and the killers rarely are met with any level of justice. They are always “bad apples” at worst, and “just following department procedure” the rest of the time. And blacks still get killed, over and over. Shaun King and others have been chronicling this for a long time.

So, instead of facing these real questions, the issues get derailed by talking instead about the rhetoric used to provoke the discussion. Why can’t people raise these questions in a “civilized” manner instead of being so radical and provocative, people ask? Well, the answer is clear – that “civilized” discussion never gets anywhere. It always absolves whites of any responsibility. It reinforces the illusion that we are all just individuals, and have no responsibility for the ways in which we assemble ourselves and group others.

This is a rhetorical response, and it is not just deployed against people like Curry. It is deployed by men against women, when issues of sexism are raised. It is deployed by straights against gays. It always serves the same purpose – to deflect. Violence by blacks is always considered part of their social character, and feeds the stereotyping by police and others, whereas violence by whites is excised from the larger group – the perp was mentally ill, or otherwise not like us. Because “us” are good, defined as good without question, and so “not good” is a deviation, an aberration.

So, asking “when is it ok to kill white people?” is not an incitement, but a much more threatening thing – a challenge to that “we are by definition good” view of the world. And, meeting a challenge with another challenge is a classic rhetorical move, a distraction in which we first have to address this terrible thing that was just said before we get around to addressing the real question. And of course, we never get around to that, because there’s always another thing that happens, another thing to get worked up about. Always deferring and deferring, and the assumption still stands – “we (whites) are by definition good”.

The person who fanned the flames of this controversy was Rod Dreher, a columnist for the American Conservative. He had a column yesterday in the New York Times called “Trump Can’t Save American Christianity” https://www.nytimes.com/…/trump-scaramucci-evangelical-chri… In it, he advocates that we all get back to the Rule of St. Benedict, formulated in the early Middle Ages, which, as he puts it, “laid the groundwork for the rebirth of civilization out of barbarism.” I can’t help but think that if his idea of civilization is for black people to just shut up and accept that they are going to be slaughtered, and that is the price of having civilization, I’m not interested in his civilization. Did he make that equation in his recent piece? Of course not. These things are never explicitly connected together, but they are connected nonetheless.

That’s the fundamental fissure. On the one hand we have Curry, who is legitimately fed up with the hypocrisy and violence of a society which condones and promotes violence against blacks and others. On the other, we have Dreher, whose utopian society involves retreating into abstract moral ideals, ones which never really face the implications of this violence. Ones which always change the subject, defer, counter-attack, and defer some more.

There are versions of faith that would be solidly on Curry’s side here, that would not retreat into cloistered practice but face the world as it really is, a world of injustice caused by the very people who think of themselves as the guardians of civilization. Most faiths have those versions within them.

We’re not yet in the place in the US to have a real conversation about race, and until them, academics like Curry will continue to speak out, at great personal danger. There is no bravery or honor in sending hate mail anonymously, but there is in making a statement that focuses our attention at the urgent questions that remain in our society. Curry is brave and honorable, as are all the others who have taken risks and incurred the wrath of those who hide behind proxies and fake names.

There is nothing new in what I’m saying here, for those who live and breathe these issues every day. But it is worth rehearsing just what is happening when people speak up, and say things that get at the real issues in society, the ones that people really don’t want to discuss.

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