Steve Bannon be damned: a winning conversation on race
In his interview with The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner last August, Steve Bannon displayed one of the political jujitsu moves that have put progressives on the run despite having the right ideas on so many issues.
In the wake of the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia, that sparked deadly violence, Bannon said, “The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day.” Steve Bannon is not stupid; if he wants progressives to talk about racism, he has a reason.
The comment helped make sense of an appalling apparent non sequitur delivered by a less wizened Kellyanne Conway in March 2008. When talk emerged from the Hillary Clinton campaign of a Democratic dream-team ticket of Clinton and Barack Obama, a smirking Conway, who made her bones as a pollster, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “Hillary Clinton says Barack Obama can ride in the back of her bus.”
It was a stunning racial Molotov cocktail tossed seemingly randomly by someone with no obvious stake in that primary-election fight. I got so angry that I wrote to Cooper’s show AC 360 saying Conway had gone “beyond the bounds of decency” in those far more innocent times and should be “denied the oxygen of publicity” by anyone with a conscience. That sure worked.
Bannon and Conway don’t want progressives talking about race because it makes us write to CNN. They want us talking about race because the conversation usually leads to acrimony, name calling, bitterness and guilt – among people who agree.
Progressives’ conversations about racism must move beyond shaming perpetrators and blaming unwitting beneficiaries to making a positive case against prejudice
Progressives’ conversations about racism must move beyond shaming perpetrators and blaming unwitting beneficiaries to making a positive case against prejudice. After the American Broadcasting Company’s firing of Roseanne Barr for crude racism on Twitter, opponents of prejudice and hate simply wouldn’t take “yes” for an answer.
Barr’s dismissal wasn’t a moment to applaud a sign of progress and celebrate the African-American ABC executive who banished Barr, but another chance to catalogue America’s 400 years of continuous oppression of black people and of white people enabling racism through acts of commission and omission while enjoying the privileges it grants them.
I grew up in New York City and a black kid was my best friend at school. I’ve lived in Tanzania, Hong Kong and now Indonesia, where I’ve met and worked with people of all races – and genders – much smarter than me.
My wife’s skin tone is a tad darker than Halle Berry’s, and I care deeply about the kind of world our biracial daughter will inhabit. But even I wind up tuning out pundits’ lectures on racism that focus on how guilty I need to feel as a white person.
If I respond that way, imagine the reaction of people who didn’t have a black best friend in third grade and don’t believe racial equality is a fact of nature as undeniable as sunrise. Highlighting historical and institutional racism is unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already reject prejudice.
It invites the rejoinder that no plantation slave owners are alive today, so why talk about them? You can argue that calling out racism in America is speaking an essential truth that everyone needs to hear, whether they like it or not. But making an argument people won’t tune out matters if you care about changing attitudes, if you hope to win hearts, minds and elections rather than rhetorical points.
In many ways, the struggle against racism echoes efforts to combat climate change. I’ve felt passionate about the environment since seeing the ominous “Can Man Survive?” exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History and attending the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. But the threats enumerated nearly a half-century ago have only grown.
At the December 2007 UN Climate Change Conference in Bali, I had the opportunity to meet an official of the then incoming Barack Obama administration and waxed hopeful about the strong initiatives I expected the new president would support. But the official cautioned me, “You have to create policies that people will accept.”
Being right simply isn’t enough. Success in the public arena requires finding approaches that can appeal to opponents and neutrals as well as supporters and, ideally, make their lives demonstrably better, rather than preaching to the choir about how holy you are
That explains much about the epic failure of the environmental movement. They’ve crafted an extraordinarily righteous platform full of bitter pills now for gains that may not manifest for decades. Environmentalists may be excused for thinking that the benefits of saving the planet should be self-evident to all, but they can’t be forgiven for setting a negative agenda too often focused on blaming and punishing consumers and business.
Being right simply isn’t enough. Success in the public arena requires finding approaches that can appeal to opponents and neutrals as well as supporters and, ideally, make their lives demonstrably better, rather than preaching to the choir about how holy you are.
Fortunately it’s easy to make a positive case against racism. Watching a parade at Hong Kong Disneyland, my wife taught me one key benefit of diversity. She noticed that, while the marchers were overwhelmingly Chinese, the featured characters at the top of the floats – Cinderella, Tinkerbell, Snow White – were all Western. It’s something I never would have noticed, because from my viewpoint, there was nothing to notice, nothing unexpected.
That alerted me to the hidden-in-plain-sight opportunities we can miss when we remain in homogeneous cocoons and don’t receive diverse perspectives. Imagine if the inventor of shoes decided we just needed them in sizes that fit his family.
Only when we expand our horizons beyond ourselves and engage the brainpower and talents of every segment of our society can we reach our full potential as a nation. That means ensuring everyone, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or heritage feels they have an equal and equally valid stake in the success of the American experiment.
It’s time to stop talking about racism in terms of who’s to blame for it and start talking about how inclusiveness makes America great. Steve Bannon will hate that conversation.