On Racism & National Identity in America

Ezra Klein: This is a systematic creator of blind spots in our policy discussion: we are very good at talking about things that we are very comfortable with the tools to change them, and very bad talking about things where we are uncomfortable with the tools, or maybe we haven’t even created the tools, that would change them.

Heather McGhee: Well, maybe that’s part of why we are so reluctant to talk about racism. Because we feel like if the Civil Rights movement and Barack Obama couldn’t fix it, how are we going to fix it? I think it’s important to recognize how little we have done, how much some societies that have experienced great social trauma, great historical injustice, make it a part of every public ritual, public culture, have a much more self-conscious cultural front around it. And I think that’s where we need to be.

EK: When we think about how to have conversations about these parts of our (national) heritage—when we think about how to fix them—people want a fix. If you don’t have language for a fix, the political system begins to reject it.

A lot of these debates that you’ve seen in these last couple of years—and these debates really emerged at a time when the internet has allowed members of our marginalized communities to say, “This thing that doesn’t bother you is an ongoing trauma to me. It really matters to me”—and I’ll often see folks say, you’ll often see it being said around requests for people to pay attention to a grievance: Well, what do you want done? What is your policy platform here? And then if you don’t have it, eventually the conversation begins to get fought off as “soft”, as “fuzzy”, as just people complaining or people wanting to express their feelings, or wanting to be protected from something.

That is a real expression of a kind of privilege—that folks from the more historically dominant groups in this country have had a lot of time to structure their grievances into political language that we understand how to deal with. And so the debates are empirical and they’re technical, and they have policy proposals on both sides and they feel very serious.

And then you have these things where you’re dealing with a newer grievance, or maybe not a new one, but one that’s only now being taken seriously, and the debates are much more chaotic, they’re much angrier, they’re much more personal, they’re much less structured into policy questions…and then they get dismissed for that reason.

But that’s part of the issue. That’s part of how the conversation has been stacked. That we have a really good way of talking about the ways in which rich folks feel the tax system is unfair or even poor whites feel that the college admission system is unfair, but very little language about talking about trans rights or for talking about the ways in which lower level forms of misogyny affect people. I think that’s really come out as a tremendous debate in the era of the internet, but it’s one I think we’re still really struggling with how to fit into some kind of format where the political system knows how to engage with it.

— From a great conversation between Ezra Klein and Heather McGhee on The Ezra Klein Show released today. Listen to the full episode here.

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