After a rare hour or so of listening to National Public Radio a couple of days ago, I was tempted to give this post a different title, something like “bathe in the soothing whiteness of NPR.” But then I remembered that Christian Lander has already done a post on how white people like to listen to "public radio" (and of course it should be added, only some do). I stumbled onto an NPR discussion on race, and something especially white about it stood out to me, so I’ll describe that more specifically white thing here. I can summarize it as the common white tendency, as displayed by the NPR employee and her interviewees, of blaming “the black community” for its own problems, and charging its members with the sole communal responsibility of enacting their own solutions.
I only listen to NPR programs when I’m driving or doing some sort of work at home, and only when I'm desperate because none of my preferred non-corporate news sources are available (such as Democracy Now!, Free Speech Radio News, or CounterSpin). MYTWORDS, a tireless and vigilant blogger at NPR Check, explains well many of the same problems that I see with NPR, mostly by filling in the network’s many sins of omission.
Aside from its shallow, fundamentally conservative stance on what counts as the “news,” NPR strikes me in many ways as blithely, blandly, unwittingly “white” (a whiteness that probably explains why the vast majority of its listeners are also white, as demonstrated by this chart at the "media watchdog group" FAIR). NPR’s quasi-liberal efforts to address groups of non-white people come across as either patronizing celebration or mildly frowning concern, and it's all filtered through a homogenized, upper-middle-class white perspective, even, it seems to me, when the announcers themselves are not white.
NPR’s perpetual mode of calm, reassuring speech itself seems racially white. I don't mean that other racial groups don't use calm, reassuring speech; it's more that NPR "staffers" seem to exclude and delete anything that varies from a bland, moderate center, resulting in an undifferentiated, supposed universality. This is a form of normality that, like ultimate, achieved racial whiteness, doesn't acknowledge its own specificity, and also doesn't really welcome the differences that it supposedly embraces.
I also remember reading somewhere that NPR interviews, which are rarely live, are run through a sort of bleaching program, which cleans up the speakers’ sentences by automatically deleting pauses, ums, uhs, and so on. The resulting polished, antiseptic, perpetually cheerful atmosphere reminds me of the homogenized suburb where I spent part of my childhood. They’re both places where people avoid whenever possible any genuine discomfort and emotional conflict. In terms of race, as with all other topics, anything truly radical or upsetting (to upper-middle-class white folks) rarely makes it past NPR’s censors. I mean, “editors.”
I was assaulted a couple of days ago by an NPR conversation on “race and politics,” held by “Host” Liane Hansen and two seemingly ordinary (that is, white) Americans, Hubert Smith and Betty Parker. This conversation on race strikes me as so exclusively white (even though it’s about “black people”), and so messed up, that I transcribed it, and posted it below.
The guests’ opinions, and Hansen’s handling of them, strike me as typically white in more ways than I should explain here—it would take a couple thousand words, at least (and then because of its length, very few people would read it). So I’ll just focus briefly on one common white tendency here that stands out the most to me—the tendency of both “guests” to blame black problems on black people themselves, while ignoring, or rather, not even seeing, the larger explanatory context of a society that has been and still is white supremacist.
The two guests, Hubert and Betty, are clearly meant to represent the opposite poles of NPR’s limited conception of the political perspective—“conservative” and “liberal,” which simply means, Republican and Democrat. Any other political alternatives rarely receive attention on NPR, unless, as in the case of Ralph Nader’s work with the Green Party, they threaten Democratic politicians.
Liane Hansen wants to know how race has affected the approach of these two ordinary Americans to the current presidential election, and of course, race is only an issue of ongoing concern at NPR these days because one of the nominees is black. The whiteness of John McCain, and of the two white guests (and of Hansen herself) are of no direct concern. As is usually the case in the minds of most white Americans, race usually arises as an issue on NPR only when non-white people come into focus. As in so many other American settings, it’s as if white people don’t have a race, and if they realize they do, they still don’t think it merits much of any recognition, let alone discussion.*
Hubert says that although he marched and protested back in the Sixties, he’s a Republican now. He’s being interviewed by Liane because he wrote in to say that he’s become “disillusioned” about race, particularly because of the supposed grievance-mongering of “black leaders” like “the Jacksons and the Sharptons,” who should be supplanted, he says, by real leaders like Bill Cosby. Liane seems to find Hubert’s racist views little more than mildly interesting. Any challenge to them, it seems, is going to come from the other guest, equally mild-mannered Betty. She comes across as a proud Southern woman (which means a white Southern woman), and yet, perhaps surprisingly, she’s all for Obama. That’s because he’s “gifted” and “brilliant,” but especially because he’s black.
Hubert and Betty are at odds politically, but they both agree that race matters in the following way—“the black community” has problems; they pretty much brought them on themselves; and it’s up to them to solve these problems.
Hubert expresses these views in the usual “conservative” ways, deploying many of the standard clichés about “grievances,” chip-laden shoulders, and a “victim mentality.” Betty agrees that a lack of “role models,” especially male ones, is a truly major problem for black people, keeping them from living with “dignity,” and even she only gestures in the most passive way toward any collective white responsibility for black problems. She says the following, for instance, about her deceased mother’s “sympathy” for African American difficulties: “She knew, among her own circle of friends, that African Americans among them had not had good opportunities for schooling, had no reason to hope that they could rise in the world.”
The unwitting whiteness of NPR is especially evident in Liane’s lack of response here. Instead of politely, “objectively” listening, she might have asked questions that would help to flesh out a larger racial context. For instance: “Well why didn’t they have good opportunities, Betty? Who took their hope from them? And who’s still taking it from them now? Surely there’s more at work here than the mere, supposed absences of black male role models, isn’t there?”
Betty also cites the “weakness” of the black “family structure” as the “basic problem,” again without seeing or citing the historical and ongoing influence of white supremacy on that problem (and of course, any common weaknesses of white families are totally out of the picture). According to Betty, the liberal in this conversation, the solution for this “basic problem” can only come from blacks themselves, hopefully in the form of Superman Role Model Barack Obama, who will show black youngsters what people like them are capable of.
So aside from the many unacknowledged ways in which NPR itself is white, the common white tendency that stands out to me in this conversation is that of seeing black problems in isolation from their white causes—a tendency which leads to the common white demand that black people "take responsibility" for such problems, and that they solve such problems themselves.
As I’ve said before on this blog, white people rarely consider the fact of their own racial membership important, so they usually fail to see that it actually does shape their perspectives. As a consequence, they tend to treat black problems condescendingly, usually without realizing that they're doing so. That means, for instance, that listening seriously to those “black leaders” who point out the ongoing effects and power of white supremacy, instead of dismissing such commentators as self-interested purveyors of “the victim mentality,” is out of the question. Unless, that is, they’re as acceptably black, and as unwilling to name and challenge white supremacy, as Barack Obama.
So here’s the interview—what do you think of it? I certainly haven't covered all facets of NPR whiteness. If you have time to read this conversation, please tell us about the facets that you see, and/or what you think of NPR and race.
[From NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” August 24, 2008]
Liane Hansen: We now turn to you, for your thoughts on race and politics. This month we’ve been inviting listeners to be part of our discussion about how race is playing out in this election. We just heard about the dreams of the Civil Rights Movement. Now we’re going to hear about one man’s disappointment with it. His name is Hubert Smith, and he’s our first guest today. He’s a white man, and he joins us from Ashland [sic], Oregon. Welcome to the program.
Hubert Smith: Thank you, Liane.
Liane: Hubert, your feelings about the Civil Rights Movement were obvious in the comments you posted on our web site. Would you mind reading just a little bit of it?
Hubert: I will. “We organized, we marched, I was a public television producer and did shows with black activists. It wasn’t a particularly dangerous or strenuous effort, but, we were optimistic. Not anymore. Today, what do many black kids get? A chip on their shoulders, and nothing but a long list of grievances. Black politicians insist on their Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks Boulevards, but ignore those black kids, or, defend them when they mess up.”
Liane: Thanks for reading that, Hubert. You said you were once a bit of an activist for Civil Rights, and now you sound disillusioned. What happened?
Hubert: I think an opportunity was missed. The assassination of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy of course were watershed events and greatly disappointing to a lot of people, and I think at that point, the challenge was to make something out of their legacies. And rather than do that, black leadership, the supposed voices of the black community, and to a large extent, many black persons, squandered that legacy.
Liane: What did the black leadership do that disappointed you so much, Hubert?
Hubert: Well, they have promoted the victim mentality and the perpetual-grievance mentality. I think they’ve tried to instill the notion in the black community that because of wrongs, terrible wrongs, that were done to them over the past two centuries, they should remain angry in perpetuity, and needy in perpetuity.
Liane: Hubert, we’ll get back to you. We want to bring in our second guest, listener Betty Parker, of Pleasant Hill, Tennessee. She wrote into our web site to tell us why her mother, a fifth-generation southern white woman, would have supported a non-white candidate for president, and she joins us from Knoxville. Betty, welcome to the program.
Betty Parker: Thank you.
Liane: Would you mind reading us some of what you wrote?
Betty: I’ll be happy to. “My mother turned twenty-one, then the age required for voting, in 1928, and she voted for Herbert Hoover. Not because she agreed with him, but because he was not Catholic. Shocked by her mistake as the Depression unfolded, she vowed never again to consider religion, or any other such factor, when casting her vote. Without the New Deal’s Social Security, she and my father, in old age, would have faced dire poverty. Without the Great Society’s Medicare, they could never have afforded medical care that allowed each to live past age ninety. Without the Civil Rights Movement and legislation passed under President LBJ’s leadership, she would have grieved that African Americans were denied a life of dignity.”
Liane: What do you think Barack Obama’s candidacy would have meant to your mother?
Betty: Well, I think she would be thrilled. She had a strong sympathy for the situation of black people. She knew, among her own circle of friends, that African Americans among them had not had good opportunities for schooling, had no reason to hope that they could rise in the world. I know she would have been thrilled that we might have a president of the caliber of Barack Obama, who is, of course, African American, but first of all, a very gifted and brilliant politician.
Liane: Hubert, I understand you’re a registered Republican, and you are disillusioned with black leadership in the country. A hypothetical: if the Republican nominee were black, would you vote for him?
Hubert: Oh, yeah, of course, um, in fact, there are many conservative black Republicans, they just don’t seem to get the notice that some of the so-called leaders, like the Jacksons and the Sharptons do. And it’s unfortunate, because I think that sort of leadership needs to be supplanted with voices of reason, like Bill Cosby. Even when Barack Obama spoke out about black young men supporting their children, Jesse Jackson made a terribly crude remark about that, and accused him of talking down to black people. That ethic, I think, saps the strength of a lot of persons in the black community, it’s very disappointing.
Liane: Betty, you’re a lifelong Democrat, I understand.
Liane: And you are excited about the possibility of a black candidate breaking the glass ceiling here. What if that candidate was a Republican?
Betty: Well, I’d be very much interested in him. Uh, I probably would not vote for him, unless I was really desperate about the Democratic nomination. But, I would be excited, I would be pleased. I think that one problem that Hubert refers to, or implies in his statements, is that blacks have not had enough role models, particularly male role models. They have not had strong father figures. And so I think only this side of the aisle, to have a responsible and gifted black president, will perhaps, just in the fact that he is a role model, and shows that he can do what he has done, will have a bit of that effect. But the basic problem is the weakness of the family structure, I think, and I’m—
Hubert: I’m perfectly willing to see Senator Obama become president, and I’m perfectly willing to cheer for his success, and by golly, he just may do a number of wonderful things. On the other hand, I believe in the American system, and I don’t believe any single president can either move it forward to any great degree, or mess it up to any great degree. I think the, the checks and balances are in place. What do you think?
Betty: Well, I agree that to expect miracles of Barack Obama is to be unrealistic. I do feel that the present administration has done a better than average job of messing things up. But, uh, other than that (laughing)—
Hubert: (cross-talk) That might be a discussion for another day.
Betty: I think that you have some good points.
Listeners Betty Parker, of Pleasant Hill, Tennessee, and Hubert Smith, of Jacksonville, Oregon. They posted comments on our web site to let us know how race is affecting them in this election . Thank you both for joining us. . . .You can read more comments like the ones Betty and Hubert sent us, and contribute to our conversation on race and politics, by visiting to npr.org/soapbox.
*To its minimal credit, NPR has on rare occasions paid direct attention to racial whiteness (though as far as I know, not its own), as in this interview with Robert Jensen, author of The Heart of Whiteness.
UPDATE: This "Saturday Night Live" sketch effectively satirizes NPR's smooth, uptight claustrophobia (sorry if there's an ad--this was the only version I could find):