Joe Gandelman: A serious national discussion on race (NOT!)
LOS ANGELES -- Is it possible to have a s-e-r-i-o-u-s discussion on race in America?
In light of some of the reaction to President Barack Obama's comments on race in the aftermath of George Zimmerman being found not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, you have to conclude that our political "debate" has jumped the killer whale. While many pundits called Obama's comments "historic," and he received praise from Republicans such as pundit David Brooks and Sen. John McCain, a commentator on Fox News immediately labeled Obama "race-baiter-in-chief."
And then came conservative talker Sean Hannity with a tone that was soon to be echoed by other talk show hosts and many conservative websites, and so indicative of what is wrong with a national discussion often shaped by the political media -- where all politics becomes snark-filled and personal:
"Now the president's saying Trayvon could've been me thirty five years ago," he said. "This is a particularly helpful comment. Is that the president admitting that-I guess because, what, he was part of the Choom Gang and he smoked pot and he did a little blow? I'm not sure how to interpret that, because we know that Trayvon had been smoking pot that night. I'm not sure what that means."
It's clear that race is a factor in the Zimmerman-Martin saga. Just like the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder case verdict, polls show there is a racial divide. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found African-Americans disapprove of the Zimmerman verdict 86 percent to 9 percent while whites approve 51 percent to 31 percent. A Pew Research poll found 39 percent approved and 41 percent disapproved. Some conservatives today seem determined to accuse blacks who try to explain what it feels like to be African-American with lying or exaggerating. CNN's Don Lemon, for one, wouldn't allow it.
Lemon lowered the boom on conservative commentator Brian Ferguson due to Ferguson's charge that Obama was himself stereotyping white women by saying some were nervous in an elevator with a black man. Lemon would not accept not just that statement, but what some seem to think automatically undermines a point: going on attack and attempting to turn the issue into the person who expresses a viewpoint the attacker doesn't like.
"I'm telling you my experience, the president's telling you about his experience. And you're saying that we're not having that experience," Lemon said. "Who are you to tell us we're not having that experience, when you're not living it? You're not in our bodies. It's insulting for you to say, 'No that's not happening.' You don't live as a black man, you don't know that."
Some conservative websites continue to write posts about Martin's problems in school in a seeming frenzy to try and prove that the Skittles-armed Martin was a menace to society. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough nailed it in reacting to the comments of Hannity and others:
"The vultures are going to continue to circle around this young teenager's body," Scarborough said. "They continue to try a young man, and try to destroy his reputation for doing nothing more than walking through a neighborhood. It's making it all too evident that too many people out there in the media and politicians are calculating and callous in their commentary. It's nothing short of depressing."
NBC's First Read notes that Congressional Republicans were silent on Obama's comments: "Bottom line: It sure looks to us the establishment wing of the GOP has no interest in being involved in this debate." Which leaves the shrill conservative entertainment print and broadcast media the face of the party on the race issue.
Once upon a time in America people debated big issues passionately but thoughtfully. A big issue -- even if both sides yelled at each other -- became a meeting of the minds.
What we're seeing, hearing, and reading in some quarters is more like is a meeting of the mouths.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.