National Conversations Are Worthless

Column: Especially when Al Sharpton is talking

Barack Obama, Al Sharpton
December 12, 2014

Activists outraged at the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are not only causing traffic jams and disrupting holiday shopping. They have a new target: President Obama, who the radicals say isn’t doing enough to rectify injustice.

What about opening investigations into the white police officers who killed the unarmed Brown and Garner, what about inviting Al Sharpton and Bill De Blasio to the White House, condemning the decisions of grand juries not to indict the policemen, and calling the ensuing unrest, which has included looting and arson, "necessary" to prick "the country’s conscience"?

Meh. Those things do not appease the left, which never takes yes for an answer.

"Mr. Obama has not been the kind of champion for racial justice that many African-Americans say this moment demands," reports a disappointed New York Times. For example, Obama "has not stood behind the protestors." He has not "linked arms with civil rights leaders." He hasn’t even posed in an "I Can’t Breathe" t-shirt.

The activists don’t want Obama in the Oval Office. They want him on the picket line. They want to bully the president "into seizing on the post-Ferguson anger." And they might be winning: "White House advisers say addressing the nation’s racial conflicts is now an imperative for the president’s final years in office."

Uh-oh. If the president has any sense, he’ll make sure this pledge is as worthless as his red lines in Syria. Sixty-seven percent of adults rate their local police good or excellent, according to a recent poll. A majority of the public already disapproves of Obama on race. As do 57 percent of whites. Does the unpopular Obama (or his potential Democratic successors) really want to see how high this president’s disapproval rating can go?

America does not need another "national conversation on race." The previous one, which lasted from 1997 to 1998, was so utterly useless that hardly anyone remembers it. President Clinton delivered speeches, convened town hall meetings, empaneled an advisory board, and issued a report on race relations. It went nowhere.

Why? Because the public forums were characterized by self-indulgence, protest, confusion, miscommunication, and acrimony. The advisory board presented the view of race from Harvard Yard. Affirmative action was defended when it was not ignored, its critics muted.

There were racial gains during the Clinton years. But those advances did not come from any "conversation." They came from a vast reduction in crime and from a booming economy.

Conversation itself is overrated. When someone tells you it is "time to have a conversation," he is about to fire you, deliver criticism, or relay other bad news. A friend of mine has a saying: You rarely get in trouble for what you do not say. And the more you say, the longer the conversation, the more "honest" and "open" it becomes, the more likely it is to devolve into soliloquy, recriminations, passive aggression, insults, tears, and bad feelings.

"National conversation" is a misnomer. An ideal conversation is free flowing; a discourse between friends; a meandering and pleasant exchange of ideas, of opinions, of gossip, of knowledge. There is no program to such conversations, no objective, no overriding purpose. A nation encompasses too many people with too many divergent and opposing views for such casual and edifying talk.

Especially when the government is involved. Who is invited to speak, what the terms of dialogue are, how long the parties engage—in a "national conversation" these are questions not freely answered by individuals but deliberately settled by collectives. Which is why the advocates of such conversations often seem more interested in acquiring a platform than a parley.

The very notion of a free-flowing symposium is undermined by the time the ground-rules of conversation are established. Cutting the pretense of free exchange and true diversity of opinion would be more honest. But no politician is going to call for a "national lecture" on race. Who would show up?

Conversation implies voice, analysis, abstraction. But politics is not merely theoretical. There are tangible consequences. And so a "national conversation" is more than an exercise by which power determines the ground of acceptable debate. It also provides cover for unelected academics and technocrats to implement controversial agendas the voters may not want.

National conversations are worse than useless. They are harmful. They presuppose, they live off of, the racial, ethnic, and sexual divisions they intend to mend. Separate the public into competing tribes, and not only will disagreements between them fester. Other tribes will feel unrecognized, excluded, alienated from the proceedings. Differences will become entrenched. Slights and peeves will multiply.

It happened in 1997. The panel was divided between those who wanted to focus on the state of black America and those who wanted to consider the full range of ethnic identities and grievances. The argument was intense, feelings were bitter. No consensus was truly reached, no injustices righted, no problems definitively solved.

So it is today. What the campaign and election of the first black president brought forth was nothing less than an unofficial national conversation on race, now about to enter its seventh year. First Bill Clinton was accused of blowing racial dog-whistles. Jeremiah Wright became a celebrity, and then it was Sarah Palin who was said to be exploiting white anxieties.

Holder called America a cowardly nation, Obama held a White House beer summit after calling a white policeman stupid, the Tea Party was written off as racist, the president said that if he had a son he would look like Trayvon Martin. Democrats accused Republicans of using voter ID laws to return to Jim Crow. Ferguson, Staten Island—these are just the latest topics in an ongoing racial gabfest.

The result? The public says race relations are worse than when Obama took office. Nor has anyone explained how matters might improve by further highlighting cultural antagonisms and historical abuses. Quite the opposite: The most passionate race activists may actually want to incite conflict and distrust and Balkanization. It keeps them in business. And it’s good for ratings.

There is an alternative to conversation: argument. Rather than the posturing, self-absorption, and moral vanity of a national conversation, let us offer the public a reasoned debate befitting a liberal democracy. Let the public choose between rule of law and mob justice, between security and disorder, between colorblindness and race talk. Let all people get on with their day, tend to their families, conduct their business, live in peace.

A tax cheat as famous as Al Sharpton has plenty of ways to justify theft and the destruction of property, to publicize fables in the pursuit of power and profit, to impugn the country for failing to satisfy his fantasies, ambitions, and desires. Don’t give him another one.

Published under: Al Sharpton