It is always saddening when reasonable, thoughtful people fail to understand each other’s point of view in important conversations. It is even more unfortunate when they fail to respect each other, or when the respect only goes one way. Despite their probable good intentions, comedian and commentator Jon Stewart and author Andrew Sullivan recently provided a large viewing audience with a masterclass on how not to talk about race, in a panel that followed a segment of Stewart’s show entitled “The Problem with White People.” This panel discussion did indeed reveal a problem with white people—the difficulties they have in conversing with each other about race. There is a lack of mutual understanding here that must be remedied before this conversation can be of much good to anyone.
I represent an organization called Braver Angels: it is America’s leading grassroots organization dedicated to political depolarization. While political conversations are generally difficult, they get even harder when we touch on race. White people’s sensitivities on this subject can lead to overwhelming guilt at their belief that they are inheritors of the legacy of racism or to bitter defensiveness when they feel that they are the victims of false imputations of racism (let’s put aside, here, the fringe of white society who actually identify as racist). At Braver Angels, we’ve even developed a one-on-one conversation guide meant to aid white people in talking about race with one another, because we believe that such conversations are necessary.
So, it seems, does Jon Stewart. “I’m gonna take Toni Morrison’s advice on this,” he tells his audience. “It’s time for white people to talk and figure some things out.”
The white people Stewart recruited to have the conversation included, in addition to Sullivan, Race2Dinner’s “resident white person” Lisa Bond (an activist who specialises in “engaging white women in radically honest conversations about our own racism”) and sociology professor Chip Gallagher.
First, however, Stewart ran a segment, entitled “The Problem with White People,” which mocked what Stewart clearly feels is the pious virtue signalling of a mainstream media and corporate establishment more concerned with feigning solidarity with black Americans than with actually fixing the damage caused by racism. As examples of this, he highlights Quaker Oats’ removal of the character Aunt Jemima from its syrup brand, the Dixie Chicks renaming their band The Chicks and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi kneeling in Ghanaian kente cloth alongside other, mostly white, Democratic members of Congress, following the killing of George Floyd.
These events were part of a widely proclaimed racial reckoning in America and signal a fashionable commitment to listen to black Americans. All this, Stewart interpreted as meaning “We don’t want to right the wrongs—we just reckon we’re gonna think about it for a bit.”
Stewart and Sullivan might have found common ground, since they both acknowledge the performative absurdity of many of the practices of mainstream culture when it comes to issues of race. But Stewart believes that this gestural politics is harmful because it detracts attention from what should be a deeper social commitment to combating systemic racism, while Sullivan sees the whole thing as a pointless and divisive protest against a systemic racism that no longer exists. So that is where the battle lines were drawn.
“At its core,” Stewart began, “I think white people put blame on black people for the position they are in, and then believe white people will lose something in order for black people to gain it, and that’s what creates that resentment.” Gallagher added that white people generally see the world through a “colourblind lens”—they recognize racial differences, but “don’t in any way attach any meaning to the colour in affecting life chances.” Lisa Bond then referred to American society as white supremacist and claimed that ordinary white people like herself are blind to their own racism—not because they are bad people but because they “every single day, uphold the systems and the structures of racism.” These are all slightly different points, yet implicit in all of them is a larger understanding of American society as systemically racist.
“Well, I don’t believe that,” Sullivan said of this idea. “I think it’s possibly the most absurd hyperbole I’ve ever heard.” Sullivan pointed to the United States’ track record as a multicultural society, in which 86% of immigrants are non-white. “Do you think they want to come to a white supremacist country?” he asked.
This led to an agitated exchange on the meaning of systemic racism. Stewart and Gallagher pointed out examples of America’s racist history (redlining, whites-only land grants, the refusal of labour unions to accept African American members, New Deal benefits that excluded black people) while Bond provided a definition of systemic racism as “the power and privilege that we hold as white people in society [where] … everything was designed with only white people in mind.”
Sullivan did not quibble with this history, though he did take issue with the idea that these events defined the character of the US. Sullivan and Stewart reflected their opposite moral concerns through the differing emphases they placed on that history. Stewart accused Sullivan of minimizing historical racism, while Sullivan claimed “that by calling today white supremacy” Stewart was “minimizing actual white supremacy.”
At another place and time, a moment like this could have led to deeper mutual understanding. That was not the case here. After Sullivan objected that they still hadn’t defined the term systemic racism, Stewart retorted, “Andrew, you’re really not living on the same fucking planet we are.” Lisa Bond then delivered an impassioned condemnation of white men’s role in the conversation about race, criticized Sullivan for his “racist tropes” and stated that “if white men were going to do something about racism, you had 400 years, you coulda done it.”
By this point, it was too late to have a productive conversation—and things only got worse from there. But one other important substantive question was raised.
When pressed as to whether this history of oppression matters in the present, Sullivan conceded that it does, but quickly added that we cannot dismiss “the role of culture” in the inequities that plague contemporary black society. The invocation of culture as an explanation of racial disparities is triggering for many liberals and progressives—as indeed it was here. The comment seemed to neatly align with Stewart’s opening claim that white people tend to blame black people for the problems in their community in an effort to evade their own culpability.
Conversations like these tend to be too defensive to allow for a real exploration of the issues concerned. Stewart, Gallagher and Bond seemed committed to defending a black community they see as victimized by circumstances. Sullivan seemed committed to defending American society (and himself) from false accusations of racism. This mutual defensiveness made it impossible for either side to learn what kernels of truth may reside in the perspectives of the other.
Yet that there is truth in both viewpoints is suggested by the fact that there are millions of black people on either side of this question. This is particularly true of the claim that cultural differences explain some of the inequalities that might otherwise be attributed to racism. We have all heard the outrage of black Americans, angry at the systemic racism of modern America—a view frequently amplified by popular culture. But we should not lose sight of the fact that many black Americans feel that the key drivers of the problems black Americans face stem from the social priorities of too many of our black brethren. And it’s not just the small percentage of black Americans who reliably vote Republican who feel this way (although they too number in the millions). Often more culturally conservative than their white counterparts, black Democrats in inner city and rural communities across America often lament the prevalence of out-of-wedlock births in our community—a phenomenon that Sullivan cited as a prime factor influencing modern racial inequality. Grassroots organizations across the country—run by and for black Americans—actively seek to change social behaviours that can result in violence and squarely focus on issues such as high school dropout rates. Many black Democrats bemoan the readiness of some black people to rely on welfare for their subsistence—and they deplore this complacency, even as they vote to strengthen the social safety net.
To my mind, Andrew Sullivan was entirely justified in criticizing Stewart’s introductory segment in his own aggrieved follow-up blog post, in which he points out that, “Stewart included not a single black voice of disagreement or nuance. He apparently believes that all black people hold the same view. And all white people just refuse to hear it.” The dissenting voices to which Sullivan refers are legion. Jon Stewart may not be in touch with them—but he should be.
Still, Stewart and his guests also have reason to be unsatisfied with Sullivan’s part in the conversation.
In his blog post, Sullivan cites the slew of social spending legislation advanced during the Great Society, aimed at mitigating poverty, which—then as now—disproportionately affected black Americans. This, Sullivan suggests, defies the idea that systemic racism defines American society.
He is right that, during those years, many white Americans made major efforts to fix America’s racial inequality—efforts that bore fruit. Black Americans gained significant equality in the legal sphere—though not in the economic one. These efforts provide a strong rebuttal to the hardline, critical-theory-informed antiracism of someone like Lisa Bond, who believes that white supremacy is ubiquitous in the US legal system and embedded in white American psychology.
And yet, Sullivan’s claim that the gains made in the 1960s ended the period in which anyone could seriously argue that institutional America was overarchingly, systemically racist sound very similar to claims made back in the 1860s. The Civil War and Reconstruction era produced a flurry of constitutional amendments and reparative initiatives meant to uplift black Americans politically, economically—with projects like the Freedmen’s Bank—and legally. Genuine improvements were made, and arguments that these improvements should have been enough were persuasive to many white—and even a handful of black—Americans at the time.
One-hundred and forty-six years after the end of Reconstruction, this sounds absurd. We know far too much about the racist violence of state militias and the Ku Klux Klan, too much about the ways in which the economic opportunities of freed slaves were curtailed through the exploitation of tenant farmers and black exclusion from labour unions, and too much about the segregation of black people into impoverished communities with few resources. We cannot take the claim that enough had already been done seriously.
There are parallels between these two periods: the post-Civil War and Reconstruction era and the time of the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Society. Police violence and mass incarceration introduced an entirely new era of institutional violence towards black Americans on a scale of millions. Redlining and the segregation of public housing, in the years preceding the Civil Rights Movement, reinforced the ghettoization of black communities. The black poor lost out on even more opportunities when the white residents fled the impoverished areas, taking their tax and consumer dollars with them, and there was an exodus of employers who offered respectable labour opportunities out to the suburban outskirts. The outsourcing of manufacturing opportunities overseas and the credentialization of the corporate economy shut out the mass of black Americans who had no access to higher education. White liberals like Jon Stewart and Chip Gallagher have a real argument then. It deserves to be taken seriously—even if it is sometimes overstated.
The 1980s were not the 1880s and 2022 is not 1963. But systemic patterns in American life still affect outcomes as a result of history—and among the things they influence are the behaviour patterns of white Americans, black Americans and all Americans. Black Americans have a far more challenging history behind them that that of the white middle class, which constitutes the demographic heart of mainstream American society.
History and policy matter. And culture and behaviour matter.
How we define racism matters, too. It’s important not to wantonly call each other racist—as if shutting down conversation were a way to persuade. Lisa Bond is right about our need to approach conversations about race with empathy and understanding. Saying this immediately after declaring that white men like Sullivan are not constructive parties in the racial conversation made her sound a bit like Will Smith at the Oscars, sermonizing about love after slapping Chris Rock. Yet Bond is still right in what she says, and the contradictions here highlight the difficulty of this topic.
But it is vitally important that we understand the fact that history, social systems and psychology inevitably impact one another, if we are to find a clear-eyed solution to the problem of extreme racial disparity in America.
Jon Stewart almost managed to articulate this. But the conversation on his show broke down, preventing any real communication. In doing so, it reflected the breakdown in mutual empathy that is plaguing American politics generally and the failing dialogue between white people about race in particular.
The problem with white people is that they fail to listen to all black people. And they also fail to listen to each other. In fact, if well-meaning white people like Jon Stewart and Andrew Sullivan could figure out how to do that, maybe they could help us undo the legacy of racism once and for all.