When Republicans Talk About Race

They should be listening first.

We’ve all seen what a disaster it is when Donald Trump talks about race. To get the scoop on how his so-called “outreach” to African Americans is heard in that community, you’ll want to read what Jamelle Bouie wrote about that.

I’m sure that J.D. Vance (author of “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”) thought he was taking a much more reasonable approach in his article at the National Review titled, “Why Race Relations Got Worse.” But there are a lot of reasons why it fails. Most notably, it reminded me of this old cartoon about how your perspective on an issue dictates what you see.

Late in the article, Vance addresses this by talking about how tribalism affects our conversations about race.

Because of this polarization, the racial conversation we’re having today is tribalistic. On one side are primarily white people, increasingly represented by the Republican party and the institutions of conservative media. On the other is a collection of different minority groups and a cosmopolitan — and usually wealthier — class of whites. These sides don’t even speak the same language: One side sees white privilege while the other sees anti-white racism. There is no room for agreement or even understanding.

There’s a lot of truth in that (although I’d note that he throws in a loaded meme by suggesting that it is only wealthier whites that align with people of color). Nevertheless, throughout the article I read a lot of pandering to people of color without any real sense of their perspective. In other words, Vance is writing about race from the viewpoint of a white person.

That perspective jumps out in his initial assumption: that racism is getting worse in the Obama era. He sees some sort of racial nirvana appearing on the horizon by about 2005, when he says, “Stable majorities expressed satisfaction with the state of race relations. It wasn’t quite a post-racial politics, but it was certainly headed in that direction.”

To believe that would be to suggest that the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people sprung up out of whole cloth in the last few years. Or that there was never a real “cradle-to-prison pipeline” that – when combined with the war on drugs – was feeding the whole thing. Or that the racial disparities in employment, housing, healthcare, etc. had been wiped out – only to return during the economic crash of 2008.

The truth is that during the time period Vance is talking about – racism was off the radar screen for white people. And so it’s easy for them to think it had gone away…only to be resurrected more recently. That is not a perspective shared by people of color.

Vance attempts to summarize the history of race relations in this country – which is probably not a wise thing to do. But in referring to the “great migration” of black people out of the South, he never mentions the Jim Crow laws that drove it. And his description of what we call the Republican’s Southern Strategy is remarkably benign.

…the black vote drifted away from Republicans en masse only after Goldwater became the last major presidential candidate to oppose the 1960s civil-rights agenda. Besides, Republicans told themselves, the party didn’t actually need the black vote anyway. It would win where others had lost, by re-engaging the “missing white voter”…

“The black vote drifted away?” Really?!

On what to do about the current divide along racial lines, Vance trots out the old Republican bromides about housing vouchers and charter schools. He never mentions criminal justice reform and perhaps the two things Republicans could do to end the erosion of people of color from their party’s ranks: support comprehensive immigration reform and stop trying to erode voting rights. Vance would know how important those things are if he ever really attempted to see things from the perspective of people of color.

That is why, after his discussion about tribalization, it is interesting that he wrote this:

It is tempting to suggest that we change the way we talk about these issues. Perhaps rhetoric on the right that accepted the legitimate black complaints about inequality, paired with a less combative tone on the left, would allow for some progress. But it’s a fool’s hope: No tribe will change its tactics just so the other tribe will understand it better. That’s not how tribes work. As volumes of social science attest, understanding requires empathy, and empathy requires exposure. The only way out of this morass is to integrate the tribes.

He’s right about that (although anyone who paints the racial divide in this country with the common refrain of both-sider-ism is showing their bias). But the only thing that breaks down these barriers is empathy…an attempt to see things from the other perspective. The first thing that requires is listening – something Vance never talked about and it seems he never really tried to do. That is almost always the major shortcoming in how Republicans talk about race.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.