The long-time president of Spelman College and bestselling author Beverly Daniel Tatum asked an important question that was the title to her 2007 book, Can We Talk About Race? Dr. Tatum asked her question within the context of school resegregation since the late 1980s. Her question—or at least, a version of it—is much bigger than the efforts to dismantle school desegregation efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, though. In light of both the rise of anti-Obama, anti-immigrant, and anti-Black Tea Party-isms since 2008 and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the Ferguson protests in 2014, this question must be asked anew. Can America ever have a serious and honest conversation about its structural, individual, and internalized racism? Will there ever be a group of leaders willing to lead that conversation, with empathy for the vulnerable and without the need for vigorous self-promotion?
The last federal attempt to have a national “conversation” on race in the US began on June 14, 1997. That was when President William Jefferson Clinton announced his Initiative on Race and Reconciliation during his commencement speech at the University of California, San Diego. Fifteen months later, that attempt at the conversation ended with a report allegedly buried in Monicagate obscurity (Collins, 2004, 128; Singh, 1999, 45). The initiative started with the promise of making out “of our many different strands one America—a nation at peace with itself bound together by shared values and aspirations and opportunities and real respect for our differences.” Presumably, this was “the unfinished work of our time, to lift the burden of race and redeem the promise of America” (Clinton, 1997). It ended, however, with the Advisory Board on Race’s report One America in the 21st Century, dead on arrival, with virtually no media coverage and nary a comment from President Clinton himself on the conclusion of his initiative.
Contrast this weak attempt to discuss American racism with the response of the nation’s most powerful to the movement in Ferguson, Missouri that began with the brutal killing of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown by then Officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. Within twenty-four hours of the controversial shooting, hundreds of African Americans and progressives from the Ferguson community marched on the police station demanding justice for the unarmed recent high school graduate. The militarized, knee-jerk response of the Ferguson Police Department, Ferguson’s mayor James Knowles III, and Missouri Governor Jay Nixon all pointed to a simple truth. Although official attempts to begin a serious national conversation on racism in the US have been either elitist affairs or utter failures, the US does have one mechanism for holding this conversation. A racially-charged incident that mobilizes Blacks, Latinos, and White progressives and elicits a response from the media and other powerful interests is the nation’s only means for holding a conversation it nearly always avoids.
In the two decades since President Clinton’s race initiative, there has been no progress toward holding a frank and honest discussion on race and racism in America. Though one could suggest many reasons for this—including the virulence of racism in the US preventing such a conversation—one of America’s fundamental principles plays a significant role in stifling the “conversation.” The strong American belief in individualism and in color-blindness to race makes it nearly impossible to discuss race and racism in an honest and reconciliatory manner. In other words, because America is the land of individual freedom and success, racism can only be seen in individualistic terms, and then, only in the most extreme of examples. Systemic and institutional racism, then, are only seen as excuses for individuals unwilling to put “skin-color” politics aside.
In examining both Clinton’s race initiative in 1997-98 and the Ferguson shooting and protests in 2014, it will become apparent that America’s obsession with individualism has repeatedly gotten in the way of addressing the nation’s racial ills. An obsession with individual thoughts, actions, and winners and losers that by definition is narcissism. Beyond the historian Christopher Lasch’s bestselling work The Culture of Narcissism (1979), America’s collective narcissism has always been a part of American racism. The absolute assumption of superiority and the lack of empathy for those facing discrimination and poverty makes any conversation on American racism into a battle of me, myself, and I (Lasch, 1997; Campbell and Twenge, 2009). This narcissism is both individual and societal, rendering race conversations into a form of trench warfare.
No Truth and Reconciliation Here:
There have been attempts since the turn of the twentieth century to address race and racism in the US, both unofficial and sanctioned by the federal government. None have been successful. The Clinton Initiative on Race and the Advisory Board on Race with the late John Hope Franklin at its head (henceforth known as the Franklin Commission) in particular never had or gave itself a chance to spark even one meaningful conversation on racism in its fifteen months of work. A national conversation on American racism could not flow out of a presidential commission whose job was to document American progress in addressing racial disparities since the Kerner Commission’s 1968 declaration, “[o]ur Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal (National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, 1968, 1).” The Franklin Commission’s set of politicians, scholars, and activists were ill-equipped to both lead a national conversation on American racism and develop a lengthy report on the state of US race relations in the late 1990s. Neither of the previous commissions under Presidents Truman or Lyndon Johnson had expected its members to play this dual role. Presidents such as William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt certainly did not expect prominent Blacks like Booker T. Washington, Robert Weaver, and Mary McLeod Bethune to complete the task of facilitating the “conversation” in their closed-door advisory meetings (Franklin, 1999; Harlan, 1983, 3-7, 337-38; Sitkoff, 1978).
The seven-member Franklin Commission included not only the trailblazing Black historian Franklin. Former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, former Mississippi segregationist and governor William Winter, former Nissan Motor U.S.A. CEO Robert Thomas, lawyer Angela Oh, union organizer Linda Chavez-Thompson, and Bronx minister Suzan Johnson Cook all made up the commission (Advisory Board on Race, 1998, 1). Three White men, one Black man, one African American woman, one Hispanic woman, and one Asian American woman, all born between 1915 and 1957, made up the Advisory Board that would give America the blueprint for beginning a sincere dialogue on race. To say the least, the Franklin Commission was not entirely representative of late-twentieth-century America in terms of age, ideology, or other demographics. It was barely equipped for developing its final report, much less this national conversation.
What the Franklin Commission did represent well, though, was a process in which individual agendas trumped the prospect of a serious conversation on race and racism. Franklin famously refused to invite anti-affirmative action advocate Ward Connerly to a public meeting on racial diversity in higher education on November 20, 1997, which took place on the University of Maryland, College Park campus. Franklin allegedly stated that Connerly had “nothing to contribute” to the discussion on cultural differences (Jackson, 1997; Baker and Edsall, 1997, A16). Connerly, a University of California regent, campaigned in 1996 for the passage of Proposition 209, which led directly to the repeal of all affirmative action programs in the state of California.
Franklin barely defended his role in creating the narrative that made his commission look more like a gang of disparate individuals thrown together by a president with a vague notion of racial reconciliation at best. Franklin said that he had “told the press that no opponents of affirmative action had been invited to a session on how to increase diversity in higher education,” and that the media ran off with their “nothing to offer” slant (Franklin, 1999, 236; Chicago Tribune, 1997). Maybe this interpretation was incorrect. Then again, Franklin never did invite people with oppositional views on any race-related topic to any of the committee’s ten or so public meetings between September 1997 and July 1998.
The short and winding road of the Franklin Commission was much more than a series of disappointments, however. It was a disaster from the moment President Clinton gave his speech at University of California San Diego announcing his initiative and commission. There were no staff in place and no advisors beyond the Franklin Commission brought on board, to help the advisory board in its unwieldy dual role before September 1997. Because of the lack of support staff and because of the prominence of the people on the Franklin Commission, it would not be until Monday, September 30, 1997 that they would hold their first public meeting, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC. The meeting, though, was public in name only, as mostly politicians and leading academicians on racial demographics were the ones the committee invited to this first meeting. There was barely a word about it in the press (Merida, 1998, 24; Page, 1997, 8A).
In fact, prior to the controversy over Franklin’s equivocated refusal to bring Ward Connerly to the public town hall on affirmative action at the University of Maryland in November 1997, there was hardly a peep about the Franklin Commission’s work at all. The controversy over the Franklin Commission’s non-invitation to Connerly came at what was its second meeting, on affirmative action and the need for diversity in higher education, but apparently, not a need for a diversity of ideas. As the North Carolina newspaper The News & Record put it, the “speeches were eloquent…But nobody questions the value of diversity. The debate is over how to achieve it…At the end of the day, those issues remained unexplored (The News & Record, 1997, A6).”
This dis-invitation to Connerly was not just Franklin’s idea. Harvard Law professor Christopher Edley, a key advisor to President Clinton on race issues, had “weighed in against engaging conservatives” like Connerly “in the board’s deliberations. He urged the White House not to invite affirmative action opponent Abigail Thernstrom…to an Oval Office meeting” following the Connerly controversy (Zengerle, 1999, 13). Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, was another prominent advisor to Clinton on the race initiative. After a meeting with the president in January 1998 on affirmative action and the Franklin Commission, Henderson commented that “the panel and the initiative itself is really on the right track (Sample, 1998, A6).”
President Clinton did two things in response to the fiasco that the Franklin Commission had inadvertently started. One was to have his own meeting with Connerly, Thernstrom, and a host of other conservatives in academia and in Congress around affirmative action the week of December 15, 1997. Connerly asserted to The Washington Post that if his invitation was “just as a token…to come in through the back door late Friday night never to be heard from again, then the process is still inherently flawed (Baker, 1997, A15).” Chavez-Thompson and Gov. Kean were two members of the Franklin Commission who attended this meeting, while Franklin himself did not. Gov. Kean echoed Connerly’s prescience around ideological tokenism, surmising that it “was a good meeting. The problem was there was no follow-up (Zengerle, 1999, 13).” Kean added
The sad thing was everybody in that meeting pledged to work with the president on the initiative, they asked to be kept in touch, and to the best of my knowledge, none of them was ever contacted again (Zengerle, 1999, 13).
The second shift in the White House’s involvement in the Franklin Commission’s work to save President Clinton’s race initiative was to create progress-on-race photo ops. The Franklin Commission’s third set of public and private meetings occurred on December 15 and 17 with Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools, specifically at Bailey’s Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences and Annandale High School. The meetings were meant to highlight Bailey’s in particular “as an ideal laboratory” for the exploration of “the successful mix of cultures, languages and races at the magnet school — where there are more than three applicants for every available slot.” As White House communications director Ann F. Lewis noted, “[t]hese schools are almost a microcosm of how we’re changing. Are there lessons here, and what are they? (Benning, 1997, C1)”
The idea that a national conversation on American racism could be salvaged by shifting the focus away from Franklin Commission was both ludicrous and extremely self-serving. That a diverse magnet program had managed success should not have been the story. The racial animosity that both predated the founding of this magnet program and the racial tensions that persisted despite the school’s success in Fairfax’s Bailey’s Crossroads community, however, should have been, but was never discussed. For both the White House and the Franklin Commission, the idea of persistent racism in the midst of some success went wholly unexplored (Benning, 1997, C1).
However, as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has noted in his seminal work Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (2006), this approach actually shuts down the possibly of an honest and open conversation on race. For Bonilla-Silva, “color-blind racism” involves “rationaliz[ing] minorities’ contemporary status as the product of market dynamics, naturally occurring phenomena, and blacks’ imputed cultural limitations (2).” In the case of the third set of the Franklin Commission’s meetings in December 1997, color-blind racism would have involved the narrative frame of minimizing racism as a factor in the lives of Americans of color, with the relative success of Bailey’s Elementary School as prima facie evidence. President Clinton and the White House, in other words, had put the Franklin Commission in an even worse position than Franklin’s refusal to meet with Connerly ever could. President Clinton had in effect rigged the process, forcing the Franklin Commission to defend both the White House and the nation as place of continual racial progress, despite all the statistics to the contrary.
Nothing would contradict the new progress-on-race approach to the Franklin Commission’s work than its three big public meetings outside of the Washington, DC area. Between January and March 1998, the advisory board traveled to Phoenix, San Jose, California, and Denver, to find itself either in the midst of protests, controversy, or, paradoxically, with little direct public interest at all. On January 15, the headline in the Arizona Republic read, “Where Is Everyone,” as little more than 150 people showed up for a public meeting at Phoenix Preparatory Academy, a public charter school with a 725-seat capacity auditorium. The Franklin Commission had asked for “‘an overflow room’ to accommodate more,” and expected to do “two news conferences to handle media inquiries…Not even public officials—including the governor—showed up (Amperano and Shaffer, 1998, A1).” Though the turnout in San Jose on February 10 and 11 was better, little beyond an academic accounting on the persistence of racism and the high poverty rates among Americans of color, and occasional time for emotional tales of individual experiences with racism made it to the town hall. The one complaint among some was that there was too much concentration on racism as a Black-White issue, and not one of significance to Latinos (the majority population in San Jose). As Patrisia Gonzales and Roberto Rodriguez noted, “limiting the commission to seven members has virtually left [Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans], plus Arab Americans, Central Americans, Asian Americans and Eastern European immigrants, without voice or representation (Gonzales and Rodriguez, 1998, A13).”
The issue at the Denver meetings on March 23-25 was also the lack of inclusion of people and ideas. The public was definitely not absent at these meetings. Native American groups had complained about their lack of representation on the Franklin Commission when it had met with the public in San Jose the month before. On March 23, dozens of protesters had shown up on the downtown Denver branch campus of the University of Colorado to protest about this continued exclusion (Finley and Wheeler, 1998, A1). When asked about the protesters, Franklin had called the protests by Native Americans at the Monday night meeting a “performance” (Callahan, 1998b, A8). The racial insult from such a poor choice of words led to response that turned a second day of meetings into protests inside and outside the auditorium (Kenworthy, 1998, A3). So much were the protests over lack of American Indian representation and the reserving of seats for VIPs that the Franklin Commission extended their meetings to March 25, to hear out the protesters and to leave time for audience feedback, which over two days had been limited just to 10 minutes (Callahan, 1998a, A8; Finley and Wheeler, A1). By the final day, March 25, the standard fare of academicians citing statistics of systemic racism and inequality and politicians offering platitudes about racial progress no longer held. The audience of more than 700 provided in excruciating detail the level of racism and bigotry they had experienced in recent years as students and citizens (Wheeler, 1998, A1).
After Denver, with the exception of two trips to Rutgers University in New Jersey and a meeting in Boston, the Franklin Commission met on four other occasions in Washington, DC. All as part of a progress-on-race photo ops, or in private meetings with the White House, or at law schools with a select audience of students and academicians. Or, between April and August 1998, as was the case with Gov. Kean, Chavez-Thompson, Angela Oh, and Suzan Johnson Cook, with corporate and religious leaders and other interested groups on a one-on-one basis. The Franklin Commission by its own action not only fell far short of leading a national dialogue on American racism. It reflected seven disparate voices with each of the seven members committed to their own agenda, as much evidence of individualism in the midst of what should have been a collective effort.
Franklin’s efforts to advance the work of the advisory board through the media reflected this individualistic approach. This was the one area in which there was consistent media coverage, as Franklin granted several dozen interviews between June 1997 and the turn of the twenty-first century about the race initiative and his leading role in it (Franklin, 1999, 233-36; Page, 1997, 8A; The Advisory Board on Race, 1998, 2-4).
“Of course there were disappointments. When I sought to broaden the perspective of a fellow Board Member by reminding her that the race problem existed in this country long before the Hispanics or Asians arrived, the press reported it as a wide rift within the Advisory Board (Franklin, 1999, 236).” This was what Franklin wrote in defense of his leadership of the commission. This statement came at the end of an article in which Franklin had compared and contrasted President Harry Truman’s 1947 race commission and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s much more famous Kerner Commission’s of 1967-68 with his commission’s efforts and the different racial climates for doing such work.
Franklin’s defense, though, was riddled with individualistic and self-serving phrases, the kind of thinking that would not have lent itself well to leading a conversation on American racism with his other board members, much less with the rest of the nation. The idea that racism “existed in this country long before the Hispanics or Asians arrived” reflected Franklin’s personal bias in at least two ways. One was the idea that “the Hispanics” in the American mind have always been immigrants, even though Latinos have always been a part of the American landscape and experience, especially in what is now the American Southwest. Two was Franklin’s assumption—indeed, the American assumption—that because racism has been mostly defined as a Black-White dynamic, that all other forms of American racism flow from this original dynamic. A third may be Franklin’s own sexism, given the fact that Linda Chavez-Thompson (Latina) and Angela Oh (Asian) were two members of the committee who did not represent the Black-White dynamic and whose racial perspective certainly would not have matched his own. This quote is representative of more than Franklin’s personal biases on race and his own sense of his authority as the only scholar of Black history on his commission. Franklin in 1997-98 was the 83-year-old embodiment of why the Clinton Initiative and the Franklin Commission was predestined to fail.
Next to Franklin, former Mississippi governor William Winter took the most interviews from the media. Gov. Winter mostly reflected on how much America’s racial landscape had changed since his days on the Sovereignty Commission, where he served its goal of preserving Jim Crow segregation. “Looking at it from the viewpoint of the ‘50s or ‘60s, I would have never thought we would have accomplished so much in such a short period of time. Looking at it from the viewpoint of the ‘90s, we realize we still have a long way to go to eliminate the last vestiges of racism,” Gov. Winter said in an interview with the Associated Press in March 1998 (Sewell, 1998, A31). The latter part of Winter’s statement came in the context of Mississippi releasing the sealed files of the Sovereignty Commission’s closed-door meetings and illegal surveillance of Black Mississippians throughout the Civil Rights Era, in which Winter had played a role. In recognizing this sordid past, Winter lamented, with the hope that Mississippians would “resolve that we will never retrogress (Sewell, 1998, A31).”
It would seem that Winter had also made himself the center of attention on an issue that required dialogue, not a couple of pithy quotes around racial progress and leaving the past in the past. Following the lead of sociologist Bonilla-Silva, Winter’s statements were an indication of his need to deflect and deny. Winter deflected, minimizing the issue of race in the nation and in Mississippi with the idea of so much “accomplished” since the 1950s and 1960s. Winter was also in denial, not taking direct responsibility for his role in prolonging Jim Crow segregation in Mississippi for an additional 20 years, while also deflecting by immediately pivoting to the idea of moving on, or, resolving not to “retrogress.” Winter essentially said there was no need for a national conversation on race, as long as individuals in Mississippi and the rest of the US took the time to not reopen the past and see the racial progress all around them.
While Winter’s refusal to view racism in the US beyond an individual hearts-and-minds issue is troubling, President Clinton’s duplicitous role in his own initiative is indicative of how the American obsession with individualism can hinder any serious conversation on American racism. The consensus for the past two decades has been that President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and his subsequent impeachment and Congressional trial between July 1998 and February 1999 derailed his Initiative on Race (Branch, 2009, 440, 474; Fletcher, 1998a, A8).
It was another looming issue, however, that doomed the President’s initiative and the Franklin Commission before it began. Clinton’s crusading for one of his defining pieces of legislation, the “end welfare as we know it” Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—the law that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—was what led to the race initiative in the first place. As African American historian Ibram X. Kendi argued in his Stamped from the Beginning (2016), Clinton’s premise for moving from AFDC to TANF was a racist one. “It’s not racist for whites to assert that the culture of welfare dependency, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and absent fatherhood cannot be broken by social programs unless there is first more personal responsibility,” Clinton declared during a speech he delivered at the University of Texas-Austin, a speech he gave the same day as the Million Man March in Washington, DC, October 16, 1995. As Kendi noted, this speech “egg[ed] on the mass evangelical crusade for racial reconciliation” that became the President’s race initiative “in 1996 and 1997 (Kendi, 2016, 464).” For Kendi, Clinton’s 1995 UT-Austin speech was just one of many examples of “self serving efforts by powerful factions to define their racist rhetoric as nonracist” or “outside of racism (Kendi, 2016, 5).” All as part of a long American history of racist ideas growing out of racist policies and politics, but in Clinton’s case, with the strong whiff of him own obsessive individualism attached.
Bonilla-Silva would call this a classic case of color-blind racism to use the stereotype of cultural dependency and the myth of individual effort to rally the troops to severely weaken a program that mostly benefited millions of poor Whites. Yet beyond this realization is a simpler yet contradictory truth. President Clinton wanted to provide proof to his Black and progressive White constituents that he could still feel their pain, that he would take a left-of-center stand and make the impossible conversation on race occur. Ultimately, that was what the initiative and the Franklin Commission was about.
Clinton’s work on the initiative while in progress was also troubling. His separate meetings with anti-affirmative action conservatives in December 1997 undermined the already disparate efforts of the Franklin Commission. The progress-on-race photo ops orchestrated by the White House in Washington, DC, Fairfax County, Virginia, and in Phoenix, Arizona also did little more than present the issue of American racism as hearts-and-minds overcome by the hard work of people of color (Benning, 1997, C1; Fletcher, 1998b, A8; Dat, 1998).
Nothing, though, illuminated more the disconnect between the need for an honest conversation about American racism than President Clinton’s own racist and narcissistic thoughts on diversity from the Franklin Report.
I am a Scotch-Irish Southern Baptist, and I’m proud of it. But…I have felt indescribable joy and peace in Black and Pentecostal churches. I have come to love the intensity and selflessness of my Hispanic fellow Americans toward la familia…I have also reveled in the festivals and the food, the music and the art and the culture of Native Americans…(Advisory Board on Race, 1998, 3).
President Clinton, the Initiative on Race, the Franklin Commission and its Franklin Report essentially boiled the complex issue of racism down to the McDonald’s 1980s-era slogan of “food, folks, and fun.” He revealed his complete lack of empathy in his extended statement about diverse cultures as merely food, song, reproduction, and prayer. The best of being Black, as far as Clinton was concerned, could be found in a church, while he had reduced Latino culture to the stereotype of large extended families and Native American cultures to a festival. Clinton had made the Franklin Commission’s report all about how he felt, and not about the mountain of work necessary to eradicate American racism. Clinton in fact demonstrated a narcissistic racism, the kind that calls for an end to racism all while engaging in racist stereotypes.
The one-time Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) said, “the end result of the president’s race initiative may be more race entertainment than racial progress or racial reconciliation” in January 1998 (Merida, 1998, 24). Unfortunately, while it was about individual agendas and deflecting and denying the long and tangled roots of American racism through examples of racial progress, it was hardly entertaining. Except, maybe, for President Clinton, whose sense of narcissism and racism only allowed him to see Americans of color as representative of cultures that exist only to entertain him.
The Real Ferguson Effect:
The one way—indeed, the only way—a national conversation on American racism tends to occur has been when the national media has attempted to cover an incident of overt racism. From the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in September 1963 to the Ebenezer Baptist Church mass murder in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, ugly episodes of individual racism spark intense, if not serious, direct, or honest, conversations on American racism. For the early 21st century, the four years since George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin for the crime of his father living in a mostly White neighborhood in suburban Orlando, Florida have led to a new conversation on race, one that now includes the Black Lives Matter movement. That upswell of mobilization became more urgent with Michael Brown’s homicide on August 9, 2014.
However, most of these conversations take the shape of President Clinton’s Initiative on Race and the work of the Franklin Commission. The “conversation” is typically a Black-White dynamic, ignoring other Americans of color and the intersections between racism, sexism, economic inequality, and other -isms. Many Whites will claim that the incident or persons in question were not racist, that Blacks were at fault because of their individual or culturally-based behaviors, and that racism has been in decline for years. Many Blacks will respond either by disagreeing with these color-blind racist assessments, or more likely, will mobilize to protest the incident in a push for incremental changes in policy around law enforcement behavior or for justice more broadly. Some prominent Blacks will agree with the assessment of a majority of Whites while also recognizing that the nation must address its individual racism, a bit of double-talk as typical of those both invested in color-blind policies and respectability politics.
A few days after one-time Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson fired the six shots that killed the unarmed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, three-time presidential hopeful and Rainbow/PUSH founder Jesse Jackson wrote an op-ed for USA Today. Jackson wrote on the issue of racism and violence with a heavy dose of what many social justice activists have often called respectability politics, or the need for Blacks to act a certain way in order to quell Whiteness and racism. Jackson ended his essay with the proposition that to “allow injustice and inequality invites a Ferguson to your community.”
Yet most of his August 13, 2014 piece focused on the do’s-and-don’ts of community behavior and community activism, as if racism and respectability issues were one and the same. In an attempt to be even-handed, Jackson referred to a string of shootings between rival Black gangs on Chicago’s South Side as a point of comparison, surmising that “[i]t’s not just whites killing young black men.” While “[p]rotests are legitimate…things should not be made worse with looting and vandalism. It will only cloud the real issues,” Jackson wrote. Although Ferguson has always been a “hardworking, church-going and middle-to-working class community…[h]igh unemployment and low graduation rates result in guns and drugs in and jobs out,” among the deleterious conditions that have led to “hopelessness, despair and cynicism (Jackson, 2014, 7a).”
Jackson distorted Black, Latino, and White progressives’ anger and mobilizing efforts into the issue of White fears. As Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. posited in his Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (2016), this is “why black protesters must constantly allay national fears, no matter the context, by proclaiming their commitment to nonviolence. It’s a litmus test to make sure you’re one of ‘the good ones’ (Glaude, 2016, 88).” Jackson’s op-ed in the midst of the Ferguson protests was emblematic of this reality. In addition, the fact that USA Today published an article from Jackson despite his having yet spent a moment on the ground in Ferguson is yet another example of the fourth estate more focused on the profit motive than on actual news coverage.
Jackson’s essay also illuminated his own need to inject himself into a movement and weeks-long series of protests whose organizers had deliberately moved away from Civil Rights leadership and expectations. Jackson’s first on-site meeting with Ferguson religious leaders, Michael Brown’s family, and a small group of church-led protesters occurred on August 15, two days after USA Today published his op-ed on Ferguson. “You can reshape an iron while it’s hot, but don’t destroy yourself in the process. Don’t self-destruct,” Jackson implored a crowd of 50 (O’Neil, Adda, Giegerich, and Leiser, 2014). Given the thousands of protesters involved, the militarization that put hundreds of St. Louis-area police officers on Ferguson’s streets, and the limited outbursts of violence, it seemed strange for Jackson to emphasize nonviolent protest to such a small crowd. However, given Jackson’s lofty position as a Civil Rights elder, his belief in his worldview and his words would make a difference reflected his own obsessive individualism and the idea that the world could be changed through his very presence in Ferguson.
Of course, this was really an example of Jackson’s narcissism, the need to be part of a mobilization effort that both heretofore and ultimately did not include him. As Tory Russell — a Ferguson activist and co-founder of Hands Up United, created in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder — put it, “[p]eople root for us. People want us to be a Stokely [Carmichael] or Malcolm or something. And I’m not them. I’ve never asked to be them. I just want to be allowed to organize and really do something for my community (Lemieux, 2015, 108).” That community and national mobilizations effort acted independently of formal civil rights and religious organizations and recognized African American leaders was part of a growing rift between activists cognizant of the need for new anti-racism approaches and leaders all too willing to embrace, or at least, tolerate, what Bonilla-Silva would call color-blind racism (Lemieux, 2015, 107-10; Bosman, 2014, A22; Somashekhar, 2014, A1-A2).
Michael Brown’s funeral and the weeks of protest amidst the televised event demonstrated that both an adherence to racist beliefs and to an obsessive individualism continues to plague in America’s unofficial conversations on race. The Brown family held the funeral at the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis on Monday, August 25. In attendance were a cadre of prominent civil rights activists, most notably Jackson, attorney Benjamin Crump (representing Michael Brown’s family), Martin Luther King III, and Rev. Al Sharpton, whom deliver one of the two eulogies for the slain 18-year-old. At one point in his 28-minute-long soliloquy, Sharpton pontificated, “Michael Brown does not want to be remembered for a riot,” adding that the Ferguson protestors “can’t have a fit. We have to have a movement (Brecher and Connor, 2014).” Aside from the fact that no one could have known what Michael Brown wanted, Sharpton was consistent in admonishing both protesters and the militarized police in the area, as if yelling, marching, and picketing was the equivalent of gunning down an unarmed young man from up to 50 yards away (Breitman, 2014).
The various conglomerations of protesters that would form the Black Lives Matter movement picked up on what seemed to them to be a self-serving aspect of the media’s coverage of Sharpton, Jackson, and other prominent civil rights activists. As Steven Hsieh and Raven Rakia stressed in their The Nation article “After #Ferguson,” “[t]his new generation of protesters represents a marked break with the older generations of black leaders in the city (Hsieh and Rakia, 2014, 19).” Going further, Hsieh and Ravia wrote
They disagreed with the tactics of the civic leaders and clergy members who, for example, urged protesters to obey police curfews widely viewed by the young people as disrespectful of the community’s legitimate outrage (Hsieh and Rakia, 2014, 19).
Hsieh and Rakia added that “[n]ational figures like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were treated with similar skepticism. Jackson,” for example, “was booed at a rally when he asked for donations (Hsieh and Rakia, 2014, 19).” However, this was more than a generational divide. It was a recognition by some as a result of the spectacle that Michael Brown’s funeral and other Ferguson events that Jackson, Sharpton, and other prominent civil rights and religious leaders had nothing more to contribute beyond words. One-time MSNBC producer Jamil Smith surmised, “[r]espectability politics profess (sic) to humanize us in the face of oppression, as if it’s on us” to be “perfect mourners (Smith, 2014).”
More of the tripartite dialectic of the unofficial conversation on race as reflected in Ferguson occurred in the weeks around a grand jury’s failure to indict former police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown on November 23, 2014. A week before St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCullough announced the non-decision, Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency that would have allowed him to muster the National Guard, with assumptions of rioting attached (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2014). In defending what the Missouri NAACP would later challenge as unconstitutional under state laws, Gov. Nixon also deflected. “I have to say I don’t spend a tremendous amount of time personalizing this vis-à-vis me,” Nixon surmised (Robertson and Eligon, 2014, A20). It was an indication of a lack of empathy, a key sign of both lack of racial awareness and someone fully committed to individualism as a lens for viewing human actions. Simply put, for Nixon discrimination could not matter, nor could human suffering, especially if those humans are not White. Only law and order, the protection of property and the appearance of propriety mattered.
The US Department of Justice decided to not bring any federal charges against Darren Wilson in March 2015. Instead, they issued a long and scathing report about Ferguson’s law enforcement practices and its disproportionate concern with arresting and fining African Americans for the smallest of infractions. Like Nixon, Ferguson mayor James Knowles III (who would later survive a recall challenge), in a Huffington Post interview, denied racism as a factor wholesale (Eligon, 2015, A9). “I think there are things in the report that were a miscarriage of justice, but every instance in the report they tried to make it about race. I don’t think that’s fair,” Knowles argued. He then added, “When I asked the Department of Justice this, they told me, ‘African-Americans can be racist against African-Americans as well.’ I told them that was new to me (Stewart, 2015). Knowles confirmed what Bonilla-Silva posited around color-blind racism and America’s heightened sense of individualism. The idea that racism can exist diffusely and outside of an individual’s immediate thoughts and actions was completely foreign to Knowles. So was the idea of having an understanding of Blacks who live in Ferguson, two-thirds of his constituents. The two politicians most directly involved with Michael Brown and Ferguson demonstrated a remarkable amount of denial, deflection, and individualism.
At the same time, Black Lives Matter activists reclaimed their work from Sharpton and others more closely aligned with respectability politics than with this new era of social justice movements. The activists disrupted a December 13, 2014, Washington, DC rally Sharpton and his National Action Network had organized to protest the Ferguson and New York grand jury decisions to not indict police officers for killing Michael Brown and Eric Garner. After a group of activists took over the stage, prominent Black Lives Matter activist Johnetta “Netta” Elzie declared, “[t]his movement was started by the young people. We started this. There should be young people all over this stage.” Elzie later added, “I thought there was going to be actions, not a show. This is a show.” St. Louis area rapper Tef Poe expressed a similar sentiment at an interfaith service sponsored by the Ferguson NAACP when he said, “This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement, which became a rallying cry and a t-shirt for the new movement (Alcindor, 2014, 5A; Laslo, 2014; Tesfamariam, 2015, B2).”
Sharpton’s response to these and other rebukes over both the overall nature of elitism among civil rights and religious leaders and what Black Lives Matter perceived as grandstanding was telling. In an interview with Vice Magazine initiated by Sharpton in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter takeover of his march, he defended his work while also dismissing the new activists. Sharpton called his critics, “whether academics or young protestors with their hands up…’simplistic,’ adding that they represent “ a lot of side show that really at the end of the day doesn’t matter.” Matt Laslo, the Vice interviewer for the article on the disenchantment of Black Lives Matter activists with Sharpton, also noted, “[Sharpton’s] been hitting the pavement for months, he said, before smaller protests sprang up, and reminded me that he’d marched in New York this summer after a video surfaced of an NYPD officer killing Eric Garner in a chokehold (Laslo, 2014).”
Sharpton’s lack of empathy toward the new activists and their criticism of him as being out of touch on Ferguson and racial issues in general illuminated Sharpton’s narcissism. The fact that Sharpton emphasized his work, his words, even his legacy in the Vice interview may well hint that Sharpton’s efforts on racism have been more about him than about starting a serious dialogue or achieving lasting results. Howard University political science professor Michael Fauntroy asserted that “[a]t some level, he’s co-opted by the government and the administration.” Between his political connections and his one-time MSNBC talk show, Sharpton’s “position in terms of big commercial media doesn’t lend itself to the kind of independence you need to lead a movement (Laslo, 2014).
A year to the day of Michael Brown’s death at Darren Wilson’s hands, President Barack Obama took an interview from NPR about his hopes and laments regarding Ferguson and the issue of American racism. “That I don’t buy…I feel a great urgency to get as much done as possible,” President Obama responded in the wake of criticism that he had not done enough on issues of American racism during his first six years in office. Obama added, “I think it’s fair to say that if, in my first term, Ferguson had flared up, as president of the United States, I would have been commenting on what was happening in Ferguson (Neuman, 2015).”
When NPR asked Ferguson Youth Activist United director Rasheen Aldridge about Obama’s response to Ferguson and to racial incidents in general, Aldridge said that initially, “the president…didn’t really step up to the plate.” When Aldridge and other activists met with Obama at the White House and discussed American racism, however, Aldridge could “see in the president’s face that he was tired of having this conversation—that he really wanted to have some change happen.” Aldridge added on Obama, “I appreciate it [his effort]. I understand sometimes it is tough (Neuman, 2015).” As Glaude posited in Democracy in Black, Obama’s inconsistent conversation on race has been deliberate, as part of an effort to curb, “or so he hopes,” at least, “the fears of white America.” Obama “confirms, at least to those who are listening, that he isn’t some Manchurian candidate for black revenge (Glaude, 2016, 91).”
Obama signified more than that in his comments on Ferguson and American racism more broadly. He showed that fundamentally, even an informal conversation on American racism is nearly impossible, with White fears guided by a sense of hardcore individualism and denial, deflection, and defense of racism while simultaneously claiming not to be racist as individuals. Add to this the role of an African American leadership walking the tightrope between working to ameliorate American racism, pushing to begin a national conversation on race, and moving to make important points that actually support their own obsession with American individualism and color-blind racism.
The result has been a constant barrage of missiles from various camps engaged in trench warfare, with many casualties, and at best, some incremental or symbolic changes, but no lasting effect on American racism and the structures and institutions that support it. Although the media coverage of Michael Brown as “no angel” and Ferguson mostly as riots helped stoke White fears and individualistic tendencies, the media should only shoulder some of the blame (Eligon, 2014, A1; Eligon, et al., 2015, A1-A2; Sidner and Kravarik, 2015). As sociologist Barry Glassner noted in his bestseller The Culture of Fear (1999), to “blame the media is to oversimplify the complex role that journalists play as both proponents and doubters of popular fear.” This is as true on American racism as it is for any other subject (Glassner, 1999, xxvi).
Racism and Narcissism, American Style:
Perhaps the number one way in which Americans deal with American racism is silence. Whether a rare presidential race initiative or a typical racial incident, many or even most Americans choose to be quiet in their denials of racism as a central issue in American history and culture. Only when confronted by protests and violence via widespread media coverage will most Americans White, Black, and Brown comment on the state of American racism, and then often in individualistic and defensive tones.
This combination of deflection and denial, according to historian Aaron Barlow in his The Cult of Individualism (2012), has always been a typical way in which Americans respond when asked to take the temperature on American racism. This is because of what Barlow called “the myth of individual effort,” the idea that each American must succeed or fail on their own merit. Or, as Barlow put it, many Americans “are no longer even willing to recognize the very real help that others (particularly government) give us. We each did it all—alone! (Barlow, 2012, 20-21). For many Americans, racism past or present is merely an individual issue, an excuse for Blacks (especially), Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans to deflect from their own individual failures and cultural deficits. But, as illuminated here, this obsessively individualistic approach to American racism is itself a denial of racism as systemic and institutional, a deflection of racism as something rare in the midst of so-called progress, and a defense of Americans as essentially good-hearted, color-blind individuals.
Are American racism and America’s collective narcissism one and the same? Yes and no. The ideal of American individualism has been around at least as long as the idea of America itself. The racism that came with the idea of America, whether in the form of exploiting African labor or eradicating Native American culture and tribes, is difficult to untangle from America’s collective narcissism. Still, in understanding why there has never been an official and serious national “conversation” of truth and reconciliation around America’s racism, racism by itself is in inadequate answer. America’s heightened sense of individualism, though, would account for nary an apology about slavery, Jim Crow, American Indian removal, or a hundred other policies that have benefited Whites materially and psychologically over the past four centuries. Racism in its various forms does not require a collective narcissism to be sure. Yet it takes narcissism to ensure that Americans never address the issue of racism and racist policies, to deflect, defend, and deny racism at every turn, even with a mountain of evidence to the contrary. And of course, American narcissism manifests itself and is infused in every aspect of American culture, as much or even more than the weedy spectre that is American racism.
Will the US ever have its much needed conversation on American racism? Maybe, if the conditions for ameliorating America’s collective narcissism are ideal. Another Great Depression, a near cataclysmic event from climate change or war, or some major calamity that would dent the US obsession with individualism long enough to address its flaws as a collective. In any case, the US is a long way away from answering historian Nell Irvin Painter’s grand question at the end of her The History of White People (2010)—asked in the context of post-racialism—“[i]s this the end of race in America? (390)” To quote Winston Churchill, “[n]ow this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
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