I had the funny sensation today listening to pop-turned-country star Darius Rucker that America has somehow regressed in terms of our ability to hold a thoughtful conversation about race.
Rucker—as you know—represents a black man succeeding in a historically white medium (country music). On its face, this should represent an achievement: hey, we’re all brothers. Whether it’s white guys listening to Rucker or black guys listening to Kanye West, the question of racial equality seems resolved.
But, that’s precisely what’s got me bothered. Chances are the very same people who would attend Rucker’s shows would point to such superficial examples of racial harmony in order to dismiss a whole raft of racially-tinged disparities (education, economic, legal, etc…). How do I know this? Because I teach them.
In my classes at a mostly white, rural private college, whenever the question of race comes up (was heavy metal music anti-black?, why is Tom in The Great Gatsby a white supremacist?), students tend to want to do one of two things: historicize race (i.e. that used to be a problem, but we’ve moved on), or dismiss it as a specter of over-inquisitive minds (i.e. people who want to play the victims are looking for phantom racial bullies).
Now, factually, this is obviously false. The Southern Poverty Law Center in bringing attention to the all-white murder of a black man, James Craig Anderson, in Mississippi has reminded America that oh yeah, racial brutality (often, but not exclusively, white people assaulting people of color) still exists.
But, while my students aren’t ignorant, I sense how the room clamps up when the four-letter R-word is dragged out. The room gets tight. Students lean back. No one wants to touch the subject. If someone does speak (say, respond to a question about the use of the “N” word in Huck Finn), it is usually a student who repeats some Rush-Limbaugh-inspired sophism (“I think you’re looking too hard to find a racial side to this—are you the racist?”).
I suppose I could say that after decades of diversity education and supposedly increasing tolerance in our classrooms, “race” has become the vegetative topic (it’s beeping, we know it’s alive, but no one in the room is talking). But, I know we used to be able to talk about these kinds of topics—not too long ago. And we still need to!
This week Indiana Representative Andre Carlson (D) is coming under fire for saying he believed members of the Tea Party’s congressional caucus would just as soon see African Americans “hanging on a tree.”
It would, of course, make sense to fault Carlson for such inflammatory rhetoric. But come on. I’m not going to rush—nor should any sensible interpreter of symbols—to the defense of the Tea Party. They’ve done nothing serious to distance themselves from the kind of anti-government rhetoric that smacks way too close of the kind of pro-segregationist language of the 1950s and 60s that we now watch in horror on black-and-white videos.
Which brings me to my theory: tragically, it’s becoming more and more apparent that Carolos Mencia’s Mind of Mencia television program just may have been our high-water mark for thoughtful, intelligent dialogue about race in America.
You may not remember Mind of Mencia, so let me regale: his was a weekly comedy show that existed simply to horrify people by rolling out as many racial stereotypes as possible within 30 minutes. I vaguely remember one bit called the “Stereotype Olympics” that featured something like a funny black guy, a complaining Asian lady, and a kleptomaniac Latino. Basically, Mind of Mencia was sort of like the witless, potty-mouthed brother to Chappelle’s Show.
But, here’s the catch: I now miss Mencia. I miss Mencia painfully preaching about the importance of humor in defusing racial tension. I miss Mencia answering a white guy in the audience’s slightly-awkward admission of racial profiling with his own generous admission that he thinks all white people are humorless, cheap-tipping accountants. Basically, I miss laughing at race.
But I don’t trust laughter anymore. When I hear people (this weekend I actually heard someone call the Mall of America the “Mall of Africa”) make uneasy jokes about race, I’m not generous. I don’t give them the benefit of the doubt. Because my instinct tells me that they believe the Civil Rights movement started with Jackie Robinson and ended with the election of Barack Obama. They believe “race” is cooked-up by overeager academics and unpatriotic loonies who want to tear down America’s roots in meritocracy, rugged individualism, capitalism, etc.
So, you may ask, why Mencia? Why not, say, 60 minutes with Dr. Cornel West? Or a weekly webinar on affirmative action with Ruben Navarrette? Because facts and statistics may win an argument, but humor opens doors. And right now we need the doorway to stay open on the conversation about race. And Mencia’s program—for all of its braindead shtick—at least recognizes one subtle reality that keeps the doorway open: we are different. The way a black man might talk about the local police may be a hell of a lot different than how a white guy living two doors down may talk about them.
This message would be hard to miss for my students when Mencia—in between bopping himself on the head with the microphone—lays out a series of “this is just the way it is” depictions of how white people versus Honduran immigrants order at McDonald’s, or whatever. Fortunately, Mencia doesn’t dwell on these stereotypes. He flexes them, bends them, shows how these differences are not always essential and certainly not impermeable. And this is what my students need to hear. Dr. West couldn’t do it. The other day while printing off copies of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” I wondered aloud to a history professor whether even Dr. King would open these kids up. Oddly, to this generation, a wisecracking, slightly tone-deaf albeit disarming comic may in fact be the antidote to humanizing the racial discussion. And then we can get to “Birmingham Jail.”
So, Carlos Mencia, if you’re still out there, maybe holding court at a local bar making fun of Mexican soap operas or Native Americans running casinos or willfully-asinine rednecks running for President from Texas, please please please come save us. Never before have I wanted so badly to laugh at your slightly inappropriate jokes.