Race & Rhetoric 2022 – A Conversation in Need of Maintenance

When practically anyone thinks of culture in America, there is a large part of Americans who reference the 1960s with a particular relevance— all great music, politics, art, fashion, and excess owes some of their appeal to the sixties, in one way or another. This, of course, is quite the rosy outlook in retrospect, as the sixties also contained much heat for all the light it shined — alas, all love is not free and light only comes from heat!

Within the sixties, America also witnessed the Civil Rights movement, and live on television nonetheless. We saw a nation turn to new heroes, grand orators, political showmen: “activism”, in a word, but activism with a swagger“it is cool to stand up for rights, better even still, to stand up for the rights of others…”

The Civil Rights Movement not only noted the success of some forms of civil disobedience, collective momentum, and mass protesting on a litany of issues but, in retrospect, also put a hip spin on good rebellion — getting into trouble, but good trouble. These forces of appeal were not invented then, but, as far as this generation is concerned, it was original then, and produced not only meaningful legislation and shifts towards a more equal society but also a style guide for future movements.

It is the type of show that if successful, need only be seen once, but of all the recyclables inside the fifty states, America’s culture is its most reused. In some ways, people are witnessing a remake of the Civil Rights movement — once again, brought to you by live television and the internet, and still fraught with many half-hearted hangers-on, slinging out of date rhetoric. We are treated to images of burning buildings, fiery protests, and angry fists defiantly punching through the air. It all feels like old footage from a lost highlight reel. 

And while America does its back and forth on many perennial issues, the one that stands out is the rhetoric surrounding race relations—mostly concerning, as one would imagine, black people and white people. Already, there will be some readers who are slightly disappointed in my spelling of “black” just two lines above — a perfect example of the disastrous state of our call and response rhetoric.

Note that this discussion is not strictly between black people and white people, but a larger, broader, ideological conversation — in some sense, it is between the race reductionist and the humanist, the moderate and the illiberal, between those who take on the now, and those whose ideas are still held captive by the imagery and facts of the past, long after the pictures or stats are relevant.

This channel of communication between moderate and more illiberal Americans has been rife with predictable and childish back and forth-isms, outdated imagery, and stock conversation that have long outlived their usefulness. If the consequences of such rhetoric were strictly rhetorical, it could just as well serve as amusement. However, rhetoric can lead to real-world consequences — and how people conduct these conversations may be the most damaging to the collective future.

On the whole, despite the dialogue on the internet and elsewhere, racism, by all means, is down. Interracial marriage is up and climbing — black and white folks are joining together at a faster rate than predicted, and a trending Pew survey released in late March reported data on the priorities of black Americans who put racism in the eighth place on a list of major concerns for black people in the United States. Take note that the top three were crime, economics, and housing. Yet there is no discussion about some black Americans’ genuine need for help that does not lead back to racism. I could ask — is America so bereft of new ideas, new strategies, new culture that it not only recycles its music, films, and literature but is also doomed to repeat broader national conversations? 

What one may notice over time in the broad cultural conversations about race is the relatively hollow vocabulary in which ideas are often deployed. Not unlike the mainstream news headlines, which are sometimes caught independently spelling out their narratives in verbatim, these chants, phrases, and ideas are trotted out in unison — vague bumper sticker-isms that are predetermined, pre-arranged, and function more or less as part of a script.

These ideas are organized by an anonymous narrative — they feel driven by the wind. In the year 2022, whatever word Webster’s dictionary nominates, I believe “Narrative” to be a word of extreme relevance — the narrative is a cloud of stories, and anyone is free to use them. Anyone is free to rely on them. But like the old maxim says: 

“If something is free, you are the product.”

And because stories “from within the narrative” are often easy to share, easy to believe, and play into the worst fears and the worst stereotypes simultaneously, they are often deployed confidently and are sheltered by a consensus view. The problem is that the narrative is often wrong, misleading, or based on old data/talking points. Instead of relying on what is true, we often rely on somebody else’s idea of what is useful.

You become the product of this when you repeat these stories, whether it be well intended or not. When it becomes all too known that a particular narrative is false, it’s often followed by “collapse” — the truth has been revealed, the story falls apart, and the narrative has collapsed. 

And like a game of phone tag, over the years the call and responses stack up against their phrases in the background, so that virtually every conversation has a pre-arranged type of outcome.

People have become so familiar with these archetypes that we can converse with them in silence — we can argue our enemies out of the room without them ever having been in it. And because the defense of so many viewpoints relies on hyperbole, language is tainted with a kind of verbiage that is often salacious and poetic, but rarely successful in nailing down ideas concretely. For instance, “slaves who were kidnapped, beaten, tortured and raped” or “young black men getting slaughtered in the streets by racist cops”.

No doubt some people are attracted to the verbiage of this kind — and while the statements above could be considered truthful ones, they are often deployed exasperatingly, in a bid to articulate a horror to which there can be no response, other than that of sharing in a moment of grief, no matter how hyperbolic the phrasing. These types of expressions, relying on extreme phrasing, have unfortunately become the norm — part in parcel for the New Left and their more strengthened, more illiberal, more intolerant ideology.

Some of these buzzwords (or vague ideas) are seen in constant rotation:

White supremacy;
Black people can’t be racist;

Whataboutisms;
We can’t breathe;
All white people are racist.

These pre-arranged dialogues are not just hollow in their words and phraseology, but also in their attitudinal and personal attributes — as in “white men have a stick up their ass, and black women are snarky, sarcastic.

These phrases are hyperbolic — they are frequently used to describe not an idea, but more to signal an attitudinal response. It seems to me that the channels of communication are so polluted — by the echoing of the masses! — that ideas must be in the form of chants, howls and jeers, and should be the length of a tweet, a few words, or fit within the space of a placard.

“…And I Have Black Friends Who Agree”

For this example, I walk through my own thoughts as applied to the statement “…and I have black friends who agree”, its loose origin, and the pattern of the call and response within it.

Awhite person shares an opinion that some black people may find offensive, thus risking (in the current climate, all but assuring) being labeled a racist.

Now, over time, we see white people sharing these same opinions, but now, aware of this, people sometimes buttress the opinion with “. . .and some black people agree!”. This last line will likely produce eye-rolls among many folks, white and black alike. In fact, any version of this line will likely get you labeled racist as well.

Why?

Here is where the feedback loop belies both parties — 

The white person knows what they say will offend some black people, but they don’t believe they are racists but are all too aware that the charge is coming soon enough. Through the call and response mechanism, they have therefore learned to preemptively engage in their own defense — they think that if their opinion was truly racist, certainly they could not find black folks that agree, or at the very least, that their opinion was not strictly of white origin. 

Technically this is true, and technically it is a reasonable belief, but black people are aware of the preemptive defense of “…and some black people agree with me” and may use it as not only a tell, but as a stand-alone charge in and of itself. 

Essentially, the conversation has had so many turns in the call and response cycle that even saying “and black people agree with me” is essentially worse than just saying what’s on your mind and letting the chips fall where they may. So much so that even uttering the phrase signals a low participation in the subject at hand. 

I pause to think on rhetoric at large, and how it betrays all those referred to, all those mentioned, and particularly those people who, whatever their race or circumstance, genuinely need and genuinely deserve help. The verbiage, vocabulary, and hyperbole are significant in their damage — as it is often a shortcut to thinking and undercuts serious discussion.

In a society that is said to be in chaos, America is having dozens of conversations all at once. These conversations and the solutions they birth are crucial — within these solutions (or are they trade-offs?) the past and the present are scrutinized, as well as their respective domain in the future.

What I wish to leave you with, dear reader is a simple consideration. Important conversations, working like a machine, must be cared for, and must be given their due maintenance. A shift must occur in the dialogue — to one that does not find its root in hyperbole, does not shift its posture in discomfort, does not rehash the unchangeable past — but instead engages in a debate that is sustainable in its rhetoric, and absent of anger and demagoguery. One that ultimately seeks to minimize and appreciate cultural differences, rather than maximize and exploit them.

Work must be done on the conversation so that the conversation can work as intended. Rhetoric has a way of informing the ill-informed with ideas that are disastrous. 

I urge us to acknowledge that the conversation is not between black and white people but is a conversation about how to repair the lingering effects of racism — a conversation that will be better served when relieved from crude renderings of “black” and “white”.

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