Why Racism Talks Fail in America – Bad Faith

Why We Fail When We Try to Talk About Race in America

July 19, 2016 by

This post first appeared on

We asked a number of contributors to share their reactions to a post by activist and author Michelle Alexander that we published earlier this month in the aftermath of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Here is a response from Eddie Glaude, author of Democracy in Black. You can view all other responses by clicking on the “building a new America” tag.

Conversations about racism in the United States fall short of their stated aims. We declare, usually after some horrific event, that Americans need to have a hard talk about racism. Politicians and pundits convene town hall meetings. Television and radio invite people like me to offer an account of the crisis. And we find ourselves, all of us — once again — as if we were in this eternally recurring tragedy, participating in the traditional theater of American racial politics. Liberals bleed sentimentality. Conservatives demand personal responsibility. Rarely, if ever, does something significant come of it all. We always return to business as usual.

These conversations fail, in part, because of the bad faith of those who participate in them. We often refuse to tell each other the truth when we talk about racism in this country. Calls for unity protect a kind of contrived innocence. And, for some, that’s more important than facts and truth.

My use of bad faith comes from French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Put simply, bad faith is a form of self-deception. We deceive ourselves about the way the world is, and we tell ourselves that we don’t have much control over such matters. We do this because honestly confronting the world as it is, and facing up to our responsibility to act in it, fills us with anxiety. So we turn away or, like a scared ostrich, stick our heads in the sand.

Americans know that this country is rife with racial inequality. We act as if we care, as if we really want to resolve the problem. We tell ourselves stories about what is really the root cause of our racial problems, stories that deflect and turn our attention from the seriousness of our national sickness and what we all could do to heal this nation.

For example, how often have we heard over these difficult days appeals to the problem of black-on-black crime or reference to the criminal history of the victims in response to police shootings? On CNN, former NYPD officer Harry Houck declared that black people were prone to criminality. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani brazenly said that black parents needed to teach their children to respect cops.

Of course, these are extreme positions and can be easily dismissed as outliers. But we know that large numbers of Americans hold negative views of African-Americans. In a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, over half of Donald Trump’s and one-third of Hillary Clinton’s supporters said African-Americans were more “violent” and “criminal” than whites. Forty percent of Trump supporters believe black people are lazier than whites. One-quarter of those who support Clinton believe the same thing.

Newt Gingrich can say, “If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America,” and still hold the view that Obama is the food stamp president. Paul Ryan can say he has evolved on the issue of poverty and reject his language of “makers” and “takers” and still support Donald Trump. He prefers an explicit racist over a liberal.

Social scientists have long grappled with the paradox of the shift in racial attitudes among whites: that the vast majority of white Americans express a commitment to the principle of racial equality while simultaneously rejecting policies that would close the racial gap in this country. All of this informs our conversations about race.

If we don’t acknowledge what Americans actually believe in these moments, how are we going to seriously address the problem? In fact, we rush past the assumptions and practices that give black life a sense of precariousness to some vague notion of national unity that requires black people to leave their suffering at the door. In that moment, we all stand in bad faith.

This brings me to another point. When it comes to race matters, African-Americans are required to make white people comfortable. We do so, as President Obama has done over the last seven years and in his recent ABC Town Hall, by striking a delicate balance between white resentment and black suffering. Here a false equivalency joins with the demand that black people be “the Uncle Remus” of American politics — unthreatening, loyal and generally happy — with a limitless capacity to forgive.

The fear of triggering white fears often distorts black political behavior. We find ourselves swallowing our rage whole and refusing to speak difficult truths in order to maintain the illusion of civility. Like Sartre’s waiter whose movements “are little too precise,” there is something about our “calm” that doesn’t seem quite right. In that moment, we exhibit bad faith.

Our conversations fail because we refuse to accept what such conversations demand: an honest reckoning with the ugliness of who we are and the racial habits and fears that animate our way of life. That is the only way we can be released into a possible future. We have to tackle head on what Professor Imani Perry calls our cultural practice of inequality. Easy appeals to unity in a moment of collective trauma will not help us do that. They will only deepen our national malaise.

Let’s acknowledge the bad faith at the heart of our racial theater. Let’s acknowledge the anguish and anxiety that lead us to flee to our comforting illusions as we want to do in these times of racial crisis. And let us get about the difficult business of imagining this democracy anew shorn of the belief that white people matter more than others.

If you’re not interested in that, then shut your mouth and stop pretending to have a serious conversation about racism in this country.

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Todd Smekens

Journalist, consultant, publisher, and servant-leader with a passion for truth-seeking. Enjoy motorcycling, meditation, and spending quality time with my daughter and rescue hound. Spiritually-centered first and foremost. Lived in multiple states within the USA and frequent traveler to the mountains.

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