Asking a conservative pundit for advice on race is like asking an ayatollah for advice on preparing the Christmas ham.
There are exceptions, yes, but by and large, this terrain is the dark side of the moon for conservatives. They don't know it well, so they tend to go there rarely, reluctantly and seldom voluntarily. And when they do, they not infrequently make Patrick Buchanan-size jackasses of themselves.
So the train wreck of a radio segment that generated unwelcome headlines for talk show host Laura Schlessinger last week was predictable the moment she took a call from an African-American woman named "Jade." See, Jade, inexplicably, sought Dr. Laura's advice on what to do when her white husband's family and friends make "racist comments" in front of her.
And that's when the train took a header into the gorge. First, there was Jade's mention of a neighbor who can't drop by without asking her how black people like this or black people like that. Dr. Laura said that wasn't racist -- which is arguably fair, but ignores the fact that a person gets tired of constantly being treated as an emissary from the planet Negro.
Then there was Dr. Laura's non sequitur rant about how blacks voted for Barack Obama "without giving much thought" -- the brainless, easily swayed black voter being a fiction beloved by many conservatives, and never mind that it was Queen of Soul Hillary Clinton who had the black vote sewn up and Obama who was forced to earn it.
There is much more, but we are running out of page and still haven't gotten to the part that made headlines and forced Dr. Laura into an apology the next day. Jade asked, "How about the N-word?"
"Black guys use it all the time," snapped Dr. Laura. "Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic and all you hear is nigger, nigger, nigger."
When Jade challenged her casual use of that word, Schlessinger doubled down. She repeated her N-word trilogy and at one point told Jade, "I think you have too much sensitivity . . ."
Oh, my stars and garters.
There is, should it need saying, a big hole in Dr. Laura's reasoning. Comics do all sorts of obnoxious things. They call women by a synonym for female dogs. They talk about menstruation, masturbation, nose-picking, gas-passing and other subjects generally avoided in polite company.
Does Schlessinger really think comedians should be our standard on matters of decorum? Does she really think comedians' -- or for that matter, rappers' and street kids' -- choice of language justifies her use of a noxious epithet loathed by the vast majority of the 38 million people against whom it is routinely hurled? Or that calling her on that is evidence of hypersensitivity?
Too bad I already used that stars and garters line. It would go nicely here.
Suffice it to say, I bet you Dr. Laura never thought about it like that. I bet you she never thought about it at all. And therein lies the problem -- not simply for her, but for conservatives in general who seek to contribute to a constructive racial dialogue.
See, I'd argue the most offensive thing about Schlessinger's gaffe wasn't her use of the N-word, but the air of smug entitlement with which she did so. Conversing with a woman who lives a reality about which she can only theorize, Dr. Laura brushed away Jade's every effort to dissent or explain. She was not there to engage. She already knew all she needed to.
One finds that often when conservative pundits talk race. They seem trapped within their own baseless narratives, loath to listen to, much less credit, anything that contradicts what they chose long ago to believe.
Small wonder they seldom contribute anything of value to the discussion. They don't know what they don't know. And they are unwilling to learn.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.