Commentary: Some slurs shouldn't be played with

Miami HeraldAugust 5, 2009 

"You are such a racist nigger." — reader e-mail

To answer your questions: yes, the e-mail is quoted in its entirety. Yes, it's authentic; I received it a year or so ago. And, no, it is not unique in its sentiment, its coarseness or its deafness to irony. That note has always struck me as a stark benchmark of our slide into racial incoherence.

Here's another: Last week on Fox & Friends, Glenn Beck, the Fox News host, declared President Obama a "racist" with "a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture." Bare seconds later, Beck turned around and said, "I'm not saying he doesn't like white people. . . "

Maybe we should blame his confusion on the stress of being discriminated against. Nobody knows the trouble he's seen.

But seriously. Beck is just the latest conservative caught trying to manipulate race in a naked appeal to the resentments of the white underclass. It's a breathtakingly cynical campaign that has gathered steam in recent years. From branding Sonia Sotomayor "racist" on ground so flimsy as to be nonexistent, to claiming racial solidarity led Colin Powell to endorse Barack Obama, to an absurd Patrick Buchanan epistle ("A Brief For Whitey") that has gained wide traction online to the racially tinged ugliness that infected the McCain-Palin campaign toward the end, the extreme right has worked with fervor to convince white Americans of a thesis also, not coincidentally, advanced by David Duke: that they are victims of black and brown oppression.

Playing with fire

If you didn't know better, you might be confused as to who brought whom over here on slave ships.

Plainly, this newfound concern about "racism" represents an attempt by conservatives to claim and neutralize the language of racial complaint, to do to it what they did to words like "liberal" and "feminist" — i.e., to render it unusable.

But they are playing with fire in a dynamite warehouse.

What wound in all American life is more raw than race? What is more likely than race to suddenly flare into conflagration? Our most ruinous war was about race. Our greatest social revolution was about race. We have seen a hundred riots and rebellions fueled by race. Race is a major component of our most vexing issues: health care, education, the environment, crime. It is our most profound and oldest regret, a tender spot on the American psyche.

Which is why it's often difficult even for thoughtful people to have thoughtful discussions about it. One is at pains to tread carefully, to probe the issues, seek enlightenment and, yes, to dissent — without blowing up the dynamite warehouse. Then, in walks Glenn Beck carrying a torch.

Rousing the rabble

Because where race is concerned, the aim of unthoughtful people is not to probe issues, to seek enlightenment or even to dissent. It is to rouse the rabble, validate their fears. This gets politicians elected. It gets TV hosts ratings. And if in the process the warehouse is blown to smithereens, so be it.

Does it need to be argued that Beck's slur against the president is stupid? Is it necessary to say that you must present pretty strong evidence to prove a man whose mother was white carries a "deep-seated hatred for white people" — and that Beck doesn't even try, much less succeed? I hope not. I hope Beck's idiocy is self-evident.

Because what matters here is not the insult to Obama, but the insult to our collective intelligence -- and our collective hopes. One of which is that we will all someday evolve the courage, the compassion and the intercultural trust, to face the hard truths of race head on, and thereby validate that self-evident truth upon which the country was founded.

But that will never happen as long as men like Beck find it profitable to toy with fire in a warehouse full of dynamite. God forbid it takes an explosion for them to get what should be obvious:

There are some things you just don't play with.

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