upper room daily devotions

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Race, Hate Speech, and Public Discourse

Well, we are at it again. *Sigh*

Two events at the RNC Convention in Tampa have revealed how deeply troubled our country is about race and public discourse. Late last night, Talking Points Memo (TPM) reported that two attendees at the convention were ejected after throwing peanuts at and saying to a CNN camerawoman who is African American, "This is how we feed animals." Today, Yahoo News fired its bureau chief who, unaware that his mic was hot, said that the Romneys were "happy to have a party while black people are drowning," a reference to the rising flood waters of Hurricane Isaac.

These two incidents underscore the heightened, inappropriate, and racially charged language used in our country's public discourse.

I'm not naive enough to believe that public sentiment in the United States is deteriorating - that, somehow, with the election of a bi-racial president, our once serene estate has been torn asunder so that ethnicities and races that once co-existed peacefully and in harmony have become divided and set in opposition. Assuredly, that is not the case.

If anything, incidents like these over the past 24 hours reveal a long standing truth: The United States has never dealt well with divisions between and among people of different races and ethnicities. And, this truth is no more exemplified than in the relationships between "White" and "Black" America.

What is startling is that these incidents of charged racial language are occurring with increased regularity in spheres that have not been relegated to the extremes of American culture. This language is happening on the floor of a major political party's convention. It is coming from the mouths of mainline online news bureau chiefs.

During the Olympics, much was said about Gabby Douglas' hair, which, of course, was covert (or not so covert) commentary on African American hair. Thus, it was a commentary on what is considered normative , that is, conforming to "white people's" expectations. What should have been celebrated a wonderful American moment - a gold medal for the United States - and an achievement within the African American community - the first gold medal in gymnastics for an African American athlete - morphed into discourse about something else altogether.

As racist as the comments about Gabby Douglas' hair might have been, though, nothing I read crept from tasteless mild racism into straight up hate speech. Sadly, there is a difference. Racism is a form of hate, to be sure, but it is only actionable when it becomes an infringement on one's personal liberty rather than an inconvenience one undergoes. Throwing peanuts at a camerawoman while stating unobfuscated racial taunts is actionable. It may not be against the law, but it is a short step from that to illegal and harmful activity. Accusing the Romneys and, I suspect, the whole GOP is not only unwise, it taints one's ability to be taken seriously as a journalist. When Yahoo's bureau chief David Chalian made this remark, he introduced charged racial language into a sphere that is charged enough - a political rally for the political team that is most often seen as subtly or not so subtly by and for the affluent, a code word in our country for "white people." It isn't acceptable. He was fired.

Only days ago, the Spanish magazine "Fuera de Serie" depicted Michelle Obama as a slave, superimposing her head on another image that also included a naked right breast. International furor erupted, but the magazine accomplished its goal - press, attention, clicks online, and advertising dollars made. The magazine may state its intention was to explore how Michelle Obama "seduced" America with the title "Michelle Obama, Granddaughter of a Slave, Lady of America," but the image clearly transgressed even international accepted imagery for such an article. It was salacious and not a work of art. Clearly, the article in "Fuera de Serie" shows that insensitivies to race and ethnicity do not belong solely within the United States, but it is our problem to take on.

Our country faces real problems and we need sincere and serious dialogue to help us heal our wounds. Our aging population will not be supported by the current influx of taxes. Our unemployment levels are not declining sufficiently. Our employed populations are struggling with stagnant income. Social divides on marriage equality, abortion, health care, entitlements, and international politics require that we work among and through our differences to find common solutions. There is no other way. Engaging in intentionally provocative language interrupts our ability to make progress on serious issues. Ignoring racially charged language and pretending that it doesn't exist doesn't help us move forward as a country. Journalists, the entertainment industries, and our politicians have to take their language, imagery, and messaging seriously if we are to begin to address the divisions and problems we face as a country.

What happened at the RNC Convention over the past day is not about the GOP or about Yahoo News; it is about our country as a whole. In two simple incidents the divisions of our country were laid bare. We can look away. We can point and make fun of. Or, we can reach out and begin to finally address the wounds that live in and among us all.

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