Two interesting things happened on Wednesday that are related one another even though it might not seem like it at first blush. The NY Post ran a cartoon of two cops shooting a monkey which a lot of people considered racist. And the new Attorney General, Eric Holder, said that we were a "nation of cowards" because we were scared to talk about race.
Here is how the two things relate to one another. One of the reasons that the country is afraid to talk openly about race is because people are afraid that they are going to be called racists or charged with insensitivity for what they say (or in this case draw). We have to start giving these people a pass even if we suspect that they did not have the best of intentions.
Why? Because if we yell racism every time there is a question about race then people will clam up. Does that mean that nothing should be considered racist anymore or that we shouldn't challenge people on what they have said or done? No, of course not. But it does mean that we should change the way we talk about these issues.
Instead of calling Sean Delonas, the cartoonist at the NY Post, a racist, we should ask him if he understands why his drawing might come across as offensive to some. Not to prove our point, but to start an actual dialogue. Ask him, "Can you not see that given the historical taunts against African-Americans that some may interpret your cartoon as directed at the president? It says in your cartoon that the monkey wrote the stimulus package, whether you intended it or not, can you not see how people might interpret that as a reference to Barack Obama?"
I genuinely want to know his answer to these questions. Not because I want to accuse him of anything, but because I want to understand where he's coming from and explain where we're coming from.
But in order to do this, we have got to lay down our arms first. Progressives who empathize with the fight against racism have to do something magnanimous to start this conversation. They have to turn the other cheek. They have to be open to the idea that people who say or do things that appear racists to them might have a different motivation or perspective. And instead of attacking that person, they have to engage them in a real conversation where you listen to and learn from one another.
Otherwise, none of us are ever going to get all of these feelings surrounding race out into the open. Once the battlefield is joined, everyone retreats to their foxholes.
Now, on the other hand, there are some things that are obviously and clearly over the top racist. And the people involved have no intention of engaging in any kind of productive conversation. This is why I am suggesting a new burden of proof for charges of racism.
I suggest that we move from the civil to criminal standard of proof. In civil cases, you simply need a preponderance of the evidence to conclude someone is right or wrong. If you think one side is 51% right, you can rule on their side. In criminal cases, you need to be sure beyond a reasonable doubt. Some say that means you have to be 98% certain that the person is guilty. That's the standard I would like to move to on issues of racism.
Have I judged people too quickly in the past in this regard? Yes, I'm sure there have been instances. So, this admonishment applies to me just as well as everyone else. Going forward, let's not call something racist unless we are sure beyond a reasonable doubt that it is. And there will be plenty of such cases. But on anything that can be interpreted in a different way, let's give people the benefit of the doubt, at least long enough to hear their perspective.
If we're going to have a useful conversation about race in this country, we can't have everyone walking on eggshells. Let's afford people the opportunity to take some risks and to say things they might not otherwise say in mixed company. Because if we get these things out in the open we might find out a lot more quickly how wrong our perceptions of the other side are. And more importantly, move beyond them.
So, let me start this process. Sean Delonas is not a racist. I certainly don't know that his cartoon was racist beyond a reasonable doubt. So, I would like to hear from him what he was thinking when he drew it and if he is concerned about the perceptions of the cartoon. Not just concerned because of what people are saying about him, but concerned that he might have overlooked a valid point about the subtext of this piece that he did not intend.
I hope that he responds because this is as good a place as any to start the conversation we all need, and - in the words of our new Attorney General - are too scared to have.