Tuesday, August 26, 2008

blame non-white problems on non-whites themselves

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.

Betty: Yes.

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):


  1. Sorry, Macon. I didn't read it all. I've seen/heard such conversations not a few times myself, and I have two written in stone rules about conversations about race.

    1 - There should be an equal number of people of color as there are white people, including the moderator.
    i - If a minority group isn't represented, it shouldn't be addressed.

    2 - Those speaking for people of color should be chosen or at least have some sort of status with the community for which they speak.

    So, the rules basically work like this. If the host is to be white, there should be a Jeremiah Wright type and for the other side, a Juan Williams type.

    And now, I'm pressed to say this. There's always two sides to a story. But there's only 1 side to the truth.

  2. As a non-television owner--thus, someone who does not watch television--for the past eleven years, I filled up that hole with reading, sleeping, and listening to many NPR shows. I just cannot stomach much of NPR programming any more. I used to listen to: Fresh Air, All Things Considered, Talk of the Nation, and some of their other shows, which I don't recall the titles of right now. I used to listen to Fresh Air every day. It has been four years since I have listened to any of those NPR shows. I just cannot stomach them.

    It's their tone, which you have described in your post. Also, their politics. In some circles, NPR is refered to as National Pentagon Radio. I guess that I am toooooo far to the left of NPR. I don't know. NPR is pseudo-liberal. They don't illuminate. They are a medium that maintains the status quo. They don't know what questions to ask, as you mentioned in your post with the host of those two guests, because they don't know to question.

    Check out this person's blog, which really breaks down the folly and stupidity of liberalism, and explains what I am trying to get at in my comment a helluva lot better than I am doing: http://chlamor-deepintheheartofnowhere.
    blogspot.com/ Sorry, I don't know how to do that thingy that would make it a clickable link.

    NPR has a show that deals with the issues of the black community, called News and Notes. It has been in existence for about two or three years. It came about after Tavis Smiley abandoned his NPR show. I gave this show a chance for a few months. (Note: I did not like Tavis Smiley's show.) It has the same "feel" as does all the other NPR shows that I can no longer listen to. One thing I hate about News and Notes is that their idea of balance is to always have a rabidly right-wing, conservative, black person on their show daily! And their version of a black person with a liberal bent, to my political mind, leaves a lot to be desired.

  3. I have to admit, I love NPR. A lot. I agree with you, about their crime of omission.

    However this much more nuanced and intelligent commentary on their website (where you can listen to a better variety of programs)

    Also, did it really not occur to them that they need at least one black person to talk about black people?

  4. I can't stand NPR anymore especially that fake "soothing" tone. I only listen to one program and then I switch to Air America or watch Democracy Now. NPR seems to perpetuate this belief that they are an alternative to corporate media but they are really supporting the status quo whether they believe it or not.

    People need to watch true alternative media like 'Democracy Now' or 'Bill Moyers Journal' which really gets into the nitty gritty details.

  5. I am guilty of one thing. I have always had a problem with NPR and even though my liberal friends tried their best to get me to get into the NPR radio. I always found NPR to be beyond white and treating blacks and other non-whites as a side show. Thanks for pointing out the flip side of NPR. Macon, what is new with you?

  6. Hello LLDR, good to hear from you again! What's new with me? As I wrote about in the previous post, I've been "on vacation" recently, but I'm back now. I think it would be more interesting to hear what's new with you--still traveling?

    Thanks for the list of rules, no1skate, though the first one doesn't make sense to me, at least in certain cases--if there are several racially marked voices, I don't see why more than one should be a "white" voice. And in some cases, whites shouldn't even be participating, seems to me--they should be listening.

    Thanks for the link, rcb, I look forward to reading Clamor on the hollow gospel of the liberal leisure class.

    Roxie, I hope you get over your affection for NPR (National Propaganda Radio, as a friend calls it), maybe by trying some of the sources I linked to in the post, or as Kat says, Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

  7. I like no1kstate's rules enough, but I gotta say, that when it comes to forums discussing black issues the most absent voice, or presence rather (mouth shut is just fine)is white people. Black and white alike seam to think that either "black" issues don't apply to whites, or that they(whites) have nothing of value, or validity, to add to the conversations.

    Whites are more often the ones who do not "get it" and therefore should be the ones listening. Vice versa, if whites are at the very least, half of the problem (usually problems are two sided), shouldn't they be participating?

    NPR is talking to the ones who need to listen (white people) it is just too often not the right people doing the talking.

  8. Macon,

    I was traveling a month back, for about 3 weeks. First, I went to visit a friend in Montreal and then over to New Brunswick and finally down to Providence, Rhode Island. I had a great time; the time away was well worth it. I am forwarding some hyper-links so you can check out my journey. You remember that blog I posted some years ago, “Traveling While Black, Race Matters?” Well that journey is still with me…. as much as I like to have a break from it all, I am forever confronted with the strange friendly dialogues with whites, which usually I find myself more puzzled and confused. I will give you one example. I was passing through this small in the state of Maine coming from Canada. In any case, I decided to take sometime before taking the bus to my next destination. I ended up having a beer and some Fish n’ Chips at a local tavern in town. While trying to enjoy my meal and my beer, there was this white guy, appearing to be in his mid twenties, college student, sitting next to me, asking the usual: where are you from, where are you going, what brings you here, your name, etc, which I am always delighted meeting new people. I don’t recall his name, but let’s call him Chandler!

    The light conversation was pleasant for the most part, considering whenever I am traveling, I am more opened to diverse conversations, with limits, of course. While my short time at this local tavern was ending, Chandler then turned the conversation around about girls, hooking up, sex etc. Which normally I don’t have a problem with that, but from my experience this conversation dialogue switch is an indirect way to establish one’s sexual orientation. I just smiled while listening to his fairy-tales about other women and his stories of sexual adventures, though I failed to mention to him that I too was heterosexual, but stating that was not important then or even now for that matter. So, after talking about his most recent girlfriend, he went so far to say that I must be lucky with the ladies, because according to him “black guys are really good getting women into bed. And if you were to stay in this town, with your luck, you could get with all the women in this town with your color!” At that point, I just smiled and lied by telling him that I was happily married. With the look of embarrassment, Chandler proceeded to ask if my wife was also black and if she were also good in bed (why would this guy know if I was good in bed in the first place?) I could have said that my wife was white and from Sweden, but even I didn’t go there. Chandler maintained a friendly tone to his voice and his mannerisms, but he finally got me to notice that it was time to leave, but he really had to know “if it was true that all black men have a large penis?” With time on my side, the waiter quickly got my bill, I paid in cash, left a tip, thanked the Chandler for the great conversation but “I gotta run!” Chandler probably didn’t get his answer and I felt sorry for the next black man who might stop into this bar.

    I am writing about this experience because, as much as most people would probably concentrate on the racial aspect of this situation, which I would have at first, but Macon, as much was a disturbing conversation, which I run into frequently. However, it made me to think about how easily to be blinded to the racial homoeroticism among white men and their fixation with black male sexuality. From my experience, I have had more white men being more forward (in a joking way of course) about their curiosities into black men more so than white women. This is not say nor do I care that these men are in the closet, either curious or bi-sexual, in fact, I don’t care if they were, as well as, I find it necessary to label them any orientation, unless they feel, it is necessary to state who they are. The conversation defiantly had racial overtones, assuming that I seeking to test my black to have sex with white women, and my supposedly wife is black and good in bed; and that I was lucky with my skin color with women. However, Chandler failed to mention about any lucky into finding a job, a place to live, where to go to school, where my parents can retire, and a friendly restaurant where I can eat in peace, a safe neighborhood, the list goes on. Instead, a black man’s luck is with his dark color and his dark colored penis!

    I told this same story to a friend of mine. His only suggestion was to avoid isolated white states. I had to tell him that it doesn’t matter if this situation happens in Maine to Montana or from Alaska to Arizona. Racism is not isolated in one place; sure if might be more out in the opened or better yet, not confronted as it would be in places like Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. But, even mentioning those cities, doesn’t mean that racism is not a problem in those places, it’s not just obvious within the police officers, but it’s obvious when it comes to residential zoning, etc. I would like your input to race and sexuality and I apologize if I just wrote excessively much.

    La Legione di Resistenza

  9. NPR has one show that I do like, it is called Jazz Profiles. Every week they profile the music and musical career of a jazz artist: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Paul Desmond, Toots Thielmans, Tito Puente, etc. (Mostly "older" artists, for they have, have had, longer careers from which a substantive profile can be done. Also, with a [jazz] artist, such as Basie, they will devote several shows, maybe two or four, to him.) The profiles contain: a lot of the artist's music; interviews with the artist (if he was alive when the profile was produced) and/or other musicians who worked with him and family members; interviews from other sources that were done years, decades, ago. The show is hosted by the singer Nancy Wilson.

  10. A commenter mentioned Air America as an alternative to NPR programming. I find [that what remains of] Air America produced shows and the other non-AA produced shows that broadcast on the commercial liberal talk stations, that it is their hosts' mission to act as a delivery system of their listeners to unquestioningly, uncritically, and blindly go out and vote for Democratic Party candidates.

    The Air America affiliate in my city, San Francisco, has the following line-up starting at 6:00 AM, ending at midnight: Stephanie Miller (not w/AA), Thom Hartman (AA), Ed Schultz (not w/AA), Angie Coiro (not w/AA; a locally produced show that runs for an hour), Randi Rhoades (Nova M Radio), Rachel Maddow (AA), and Mike Malloy (Nova M Radio).

    The only host that engages in true critical thinking, and surprisingly!, talks about white privilege, is Mike Malloy, who was fired by Air America Radio. Also, he does not dedicate his show to [trying to] convincing his listeners to vote for the Democratic candidate du jour, for the lesser of two evils. Malloy is a white dude; in his late 60s, I think.

    Many of the of the liberal Bay Area listeners of Green960 (that is the station's name) do not like Malloy, for they consider him to be "too angry" and "too critical." (Check out that blog that I linked to in my previous post. The author of it talks about the kind of liberalism that is all to pervasive in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is the kind of liberalism that thinks that buying a Prius is the answer to reversing global warming. That thinks that having one or two black persons at a gathering of several dozen is true diversity. Or that voting for the corporatist candidate Barack Obama proves that they are enlightened about race.)

  11. Correction:

    That thinks that having one or two black persons at a gathering of several dozen whites is true diversity.


    Or that voting for the corporatist candidate Barack Obama will really bring about "change that we can believe in."

    Thanks, Macon D, for letting me post many lengthy comments to this post. I'm going to stop with all this typing, now. I'll step back to give someone else a chance to talk.

  12. didn't read the whole thing, sorry - length is a factor.

    but i know exactly what you mean. you could post the transcript to any of CNN's "Black in America" specials. ugh.

  13. @brohammas

    I agree with your additions. I don't want to shut white people out of the discussion all together. I just would like the average white person to begin having a sense of how they benefit from, if not out right perpetuate, racism.

    And hey you guys, don't be afraid to leave your thoughts at my blog - herecomethatgirl.blogspot.com. I'll respond either in the comments or with a post.

  14. I just would like to say that your analysis and topic choice both are getting better and better. As a Jamerican with a triple lens view of America I want to let you know that some days you do need to take a break from seeing the social/racial implications of what is going on around you. POC deal with this all the time. Some suffer burn-out and decide to live in blissful denial/ignorance. Since your perspective is so unique I (We) need to hear your voice. I need to be reminded that there are rational 'good' white people out there who are not leaning on the supremacist structure for support.


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