On Juan Williams and why Black folks really can’t talk about race
By Brittney Cooper, Assistant Professor of Women's Studies, University of Alabama,
Race-talk is American’s national hiccup. This is nothing new. Many perspectives have been bandied back and forth about NPR’s recent and unceremonious firing of conservative commentator Juan Williams. I am personally not a fan of Williams. Even so, his termination was an opportunistic move by an organization looking for an excuse to let him go.
However, I think that this incident offers a window into a very insidious trend in racial discourse in this country. Recently, we have seen a spate of incidents of public white figures—Harry Reid, Vice President Joe Biden, tv personality Dog the Bounty Hunter, and of course the infamous Don Imus-- making incendiary, misinformed, and offensive comments about race. Without careful analysis, we might make the mistake of reading Juan Williams comments within the same parameters, as a kind of unfortunate and ignorant racial diarrhea.
However, 2010 has shown us something new. In July, we witnessed USDA official Shirley Sherrod be swiftly removed from her post when comments surfaced from a March 2010 NAACP speech that she gave in which she admitted to having racial bias against poor white farmers in rural Georgia in the 1980s. Taken out of context by conservative hacks, her remarks seemed to indicate a kind of troubling racism. In just a few short days, it was revealed that she had actually used this incident with a poor white farmer as a teachable moment about the need to rethink our racial biases and to put them in a larger context. Juan Williams attempted in his remarks to do the same thing. He was not arguing that Muslims are terrorists, but rather acknowledging his own biases against them in our post-911 world. And he was attempting to acknowledge that bias as a way to demand that we deal with the irrationality and unfairness of our racial fears. Rather than invoking the usual staid conservative critique of the problems with political correctness, Williams pointed to the very real issue of the ways in which political correctness often impedes our ability to be honest, and by extension our ability to address the reality of ingrained racial bias.
These comments uttered by Williams and Sherrod then are qualitatively distinct from the comments uttered by Don Imus, Harry Reid, and others. Whereas the latter comments reflect broad ignorance, continued adherence to antiquated racial stereotypes, and a troubling lack of reflexivity on matters of racial identity, the comments of Sherrod and Williams indicate a high degree of conscientious and self-reflexive engagement with the politics of racism, in ways that have the potential to be transformative. Sherrod’s message is powerful because she attempts to think through the broad sets of concerns, for instance not just race, but also class, which subjugate large subsets of people regardless of race. Williams’ message is powerful because it acknowledges America’s rampant Islamaphobia, a diseased condition that is at best a nuisance and at worst deadly to our Muslim brothers and sisters. It is no coincidence, I would argue, that the two figures who are thoughtful and self reflective about racial politics and their own potential for racism are African American. No, African Americans are not inherently more virtuous on racial matters. But our history of subjugation in this country often compels us to think more critically about the tangled tentacles of racism that threaten to entrap us all.
Having just finished teaching a unit on Derrick Bell in an undergraduate course on Black intellectuals, I am left with the profound sense, however, that moral conviction and the striving for ideals of racial truth and equality are poor racial strategies for Black folks. The moral rightness of Williams’ choice to be honest might help us sleep well at night, but it has not had the transformative impact that this kind of transparent racial discourse is meant to evoke. Bell admonished in Faces at the Bottom of the Well that “that racial patterns [will always] adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.”
It is a laughable (painful) irony that Don Imus, certified racial philistine, has a pulpit from which to share his own thoughts about the Williams controversy: “I’m not a fan…Juan will be okay.”
When Imus was fired in 2007 for calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team a bunch of “nappy-headed hoes,” he appeared on every news station apologizing and asking for racial vindication. After a few months out of the spotlight, he was back on the air. He had no problem casting his racial crisis as our national emergency, which makes his dismissiveness of Williams absolutely outrageous. Dog, the Bounty Hunter was caught on tape in 2007, using the n-word gratuitously and telling his son not to date a Black woman. Yet, he insisted on his racial innocence, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and after a short hiatus for his show on A & E, he, too, is back on the air. These men have done nothing to move national racial conversations forward, and while Williams’ conservatism is nothing to shout about, in this instance, he absolutely put himself on the line to have a much needed conversation about American anti-Muslim bias.
Unfortunately, we still expect Black folks to be the sacrificial lamb in matters of race. Moreover, the racial myopia of Black and white liberal organizations (NAACP/NPR) demands swift punishment for transgressing racial boundaries. This places Black folks who desire to speak about race in an especially vulnerable position; by punishing Black folks for racism, the gatekeepers of racial discourse appear “objective.” Moreover, the presence of racially problematic comments from African Americans acts as proof that “Black folks are racist, too,” as if the presence of racially prejudicial attitudes among Black folks in any way rivals the systematic benefits conferred by white privilege and the pervasive negative effects of the ideology of white supremacy. In being able to point to Black racism, white folks are absolved of guilt.
Moreover, according to Derrick Bell’s “rules of racial standing,” Black people have no racial standing (legitimacy or authority) to address racial problems in this country: “No matter what their experience or expertise, blacks' statements involving race are deemed 'special pleading' and thus not entitled to serious consideration.” While Bell was speaking here about Black folks advocating for issues relevant to Black people, his statements hold true in the case of Williams and Sherrod. At best, the attempts of these folks to grapple in a more nuanced manner with the politics of race are inherently perceived as offensive and necessarily silenced. While it seems as if all Black folks talk about is race, the reality is that we are only allowed to speak of it in the most limited of scripts.
The notion that we can address racism without ever acknowledging personal bias is a deeply flawed one. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said it best in 1978 on the eve of the Bakke affirmative action decision, “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way.”
Brittney Cooper Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Alabama. She earned her Ph.D. at Emory and her undergraduate at Howard.