Hey, black folks, do you know any white folks? Good. OK, I want you to go up to them right now and, as politely as you can, start sharing your most deeply held racial views. Hey, white folks, you're not off the hook. I want you to go and do likewise with any black people you know.
Don't want to do that? Really? Well, then, you're a coward.
That's the short version of Attorney General Eric Holder's speech this week celebrating Black History Month.
Holder says we are "a nation of cowards" because we're unwilling to discuss race to his satisfaction. Some might say that's an ironic diagnosis given that Holder is the first black attorney general, appointed by the first black president of the United States.
Nonetheless, Holder thinks the answer to our racial problems is for more people of different colors to talk about how race defines them. He suggests using the "artificial device" of Black History Month "to generate discussion that should come more naturally" but doesn't.
Well, in the spirit of full and frank discussion, let me say I have some problems with Holder's analysis.
The first thing worth pointing out is that Holder is wrong. America talks about race incessantly, in classrooms, lecture halls, movies, op-ed pages, books, magazines, talk shows, just about every third PBS documentary by my count, blogs, diversity training sessions and, yes, even mandatory Black History Month events.
In fairness, Holder seems vaguely aware of this. The hitch is that he thinks this isn't nearly enough racial argy-bargy. We've got to work the balm of racial dialogue deep into muscle and sinew of the body politic.
My biggest objection to Holder's speech is that it reveals how enthralled to a cliché he is. Look, despite the bold tone of his remarks, this is just a terribly hackneyed idea. People have been calling for a national dialogue for years. Twelve years ago, Bill Clinton even proclaimed a whole year would be dedicated to a national conversation on race.
Assuming Holder is serious, who says more talk would make things better? Is there some social science to back up this talking point posing as wisdom? Have there been studies showing that if you force blacks and whites to talk endlessly about race, race relations improve? If so, is the research any good? Or is this liberal conventional wisdom masquerading as something else?
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