Shut Up and Speak Honestly

James Taranto, Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2013

Attorney General Eric Holder sounded a familiar theme in his first public comments after George Zimmerman’s acquittal. “I believe that this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally charged issues that this case has raised,” Holder told the annual Social Action Luncheon of Delta Sigma Theta, a historically black sorority. “We must not–as we have too often in the past–let this opportunity pass.”

The comment echoes, albeit softly, Holder’s famous 2009 declaration that “in things racial,” America is “a nation of cowards.”

As if prompted by Holder’s exhortation, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post weighs in with a column on the Zimmerman case:

I don’t like what George Zimmerman did, and I hate that Trayvon Martin is dead. But I also can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize. I don’t know whether Zimmerman is a racist. But I’m tired of politicians and others who have donned hoodies in solidarity with Martin and who essentially suggest that, for recognizing the reality of urban crime in the United States, I am a racist. The hoodie blinds them as much as it did Zimmerman.

Cohen goes on to say that “the problems of the black underclass are hardly new” and that while their origins can be attributed to slavery and Jim Crow, “for want of a better word, the problem is cultural, and it will be solved when the culture, somehow, is changed.”

One may agree or disagree with Cohen’s point of view, but one cannot accuse him of dishonesty or diffidence. He is, just as Holder urged, expressing himself honestly about complicated and emotionally charged questions.

Michael Calderone of the Puffington Host reports on the reaction:

“Richard Cohen’s not a racist, he just thinks it’s reasonable to assume young black men are all criminals,” tweeted Slate’s Matt Yglesias.

“I totally recognize the hoodie uniform,” tweeted The Washington Post’s own Ezra Klein. “I wore it at UC Santa Cruz. Weirdly, no one thought I was dangerous.”

“Washington Post is scared of young black men,” tweeted Circa editor-in-chief Anthony De Rosa.

And Washington City Paper editor Mike Madden tweeted his own summation of the piece: “Post columnist Richard Cohen: ‘. . . I am a racist.'”

The Washington Post’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, defended running the column in an email to The Huffington Post [sic] on Tuesday.

“If I had not published the column, just as many people would be asking why the Post can’t tolerate diverse points of view,” Hiatt said.

“I think if people want a ‘conversation about race,’ as is frequently suggested, they should be open to a range of views and perspectives. We already have published multiple such views–not only Richard Cohen’s, but Gene Robinson on the same page, Ruth Marcus and Jonathan Capehart and our own editorial the day before–and we’ve got more coming,” Hiatt continued. “If people don’t like a particular opinion, my feeling is they should respond to it, not seek to stifle it.”

To be sure, the smug mockery of twits like Yglesias and Klein, while it does not contribute to the honest conversation Holder claims to want, is not much of a detraction from it either.

On the other hand, the “racist” label is intended as a conversation-stopper. {snip}

{snip}

But an honest conversation requires more than honesty. It requires a willingness to engage constructively with people who hold views with which one disagrees, or that one finds disagreeable. In that regard, Cohen measures up while his detractors fall short.

If America is a “nation of cowards,” it is likely because many people with views similar to Cohen’s prefer to avoid the subject rather than endure the unpleasantness and potential serious repercussions that come with the accusation of racism. Holder’s call for honest conversation would have some force if he exhorted fellow liberals and fellow blacks to be sensitive to the reasons for these inhibitions. Absent that, it’s more lecture than conversation.

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