‘Roots’ of a new conversation about race

The original “Roots,” which aired in 1977 to record audiences still flushed from America’s bicentennial, seared slavery into the American consciousness in an unprecedented way. Never before had the whole nation seen slavery enacted so vividly and with such tragic pull.

Staying up past my bedtime night after night to see the show with my parents remains one of the most arresting memories of my childhood. There was no home video yet, so I was never sure how I might ever see such a show again.

There is a case to be made that in the 1970s, “Roots” did indeed push the U.S. to “come to terms” with slavery. Certainly much recent cultural and public dialogue about slavery traces its way back to “Roots”: Consider the feature films “12 Years a Slave” and “Amistad,” the African Slave Burial Ground in New York City, the New-York Historical Society exhibit about slavery in New York, the discussion of reparations for slavery in the late 1990s, black Americans’ interest in tracing their genetic ancestry, and even criticisms that the smash Broadway musical “Hamilton” is remiss in downplaying the role of slavery in its characters’ lives.

However, at this point we must ask a question. How do we define the “terms,” and at what point can we say that they have been met?

Many will argue today — and with good reason — that we still haven’t “come to terms” with slavery. We haven’t “reckoned with” it. But in 2016, our discussion of such matters would be more constructive with a clearer sense of what those words — “terms” and “reckoning” — actually mean. If the original “Roots” series, the current History Channel remake and the ample discussion of slavery across so many forums don’t qualify as “coming to terms,” then the meaning of the phrase is less clear than we may think.

For example, will coming to terms with slavery require granting slavery’s descendants reparations of some kind? This outcome seems unlikely, but if this is indeed the “reckoning” intended (or needed), then we should be clear about that.

Or, does “coming to terms” instead mean more general awareness about the history and impact of slavery? If so, we still need to zero in a bit. America’s intelligentsia and educated class are grievously dismayed about slavery. They would appear, that is, to be very much “reckoning” with it in the conventional sense of that term, as grappling with and processing something difficult, contradictory, or irreconcilable.

But if there are people who still feel that America hasn’t “come to terms” with slavery, then they are claiming that in an America in which Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” is a megahit best seller.

If that America is one in which slavery is still not reckoned with, then I assume that the problem is that the rest of America — “out there,” as blue-state America likes to term such people — still hasn’t come to the terms in question. That is, the logger in Washington state, the Indian immigrant shopkeeper in Queens, the small-town white grandmother in Kansas who works the voting tables at election time, that guy working in the toll booth — collectively, they don’t care (or know) enough about America’s roots in slavery.

Is this why so many people think that America hasn’t “come to terms” with slavery? One might ask just what it would do for black people’s everyday lives if, say, the TSA guy and the hairdresser truly “reckoned” with slavery. One might also question how practical it is to expect that this reckoning could ever be so universally accomplished in as vast, heterogeneous, and troubled a society as ours.

I might be accused of caricaturing people by calling for “reckoning” here. “No one has said the guy who installs your cable has to ‘reckon’ with slavery,” one might object. Many viewers who respond to this new version of “Roots” may say we still haven’t “come to terms” with it, despite how widely discussed the topic has been in this country in the past few decades.

But if “coming to terms” refers neither to reparations nor to all Americans understanding how slavery has shaped their nation, then the phrase must have lost what we would call meaning long ago.

When we say “coming to terms” in reference to slavery and race, or talk about America “reckoning with” it, it seems more like a refrain than information, like singing “tra la la” or “Hey nonny nonny” in antiquated song lyrics.

But maybe it only seems that way. I sincerely hope that people talking about slavery do so with intention and a belief that change can happen in the world we live in. I hope that they aren’t actually using a kind of liturgical language, in which the incantation that “we haven’t come to terms” is the end in itself, a generalized expression of anger about the past and dissatisfaction with the present, disconnected from any plan for the future.

A real discussion about race needs clarity about, well, the terms of the conversation. The “Roots” remake is, of course, but one occasion that gets people talking about how America has yet to “come to terms with” race, with an implication that a certain shoe has yet to drop, that some kind of judgment day is to come. But as with all long and hotly discussed issues, it has gotten to the point where people often use words more as rhetorical strategies than as vehicles of precise meaning.

Back in the 1970s, I could sense that “Roots” had changed the conversation on race in America by burning slavery into the national mind in a newly urgent way. Here in 2016, I see the fact there is even a remake as evidence that a lesson was well learned and is being passed on.

And I sincerely wonder: what more terms are there to come to? Opinions will differ, but the question is worth asking.

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Diversity on campus: Does it have a future?

— Diversity is under threat on college campuses across the land — from exactly the students cherished for their diversity by admissions committees.

Let us recall that for almost 40 years now, diversity has been the gold standard defense of racial preferences. Racial diversity is said to enhance the classroom (and general social) experience by exposing other students to views purportedly most likely to come from people of color.

Yet it is too little remarked that much of what we hear from black students — and not only amidst the protests of late but often over decades past as well — flies directly in the face of the whole diversity argument that university administrators propound so ardently.

Safe spaces

For example, at Oberlin, student protesters are demanding not just one but several “safe spaces” for “Africana-identifying” students. It’s fair to assume that white students would not be allowed in these spaces, given that the rationale is that here is where black students could catch their breath after the endless sallies of racism that the school’s students and environment force upon them daily.

Aside from the obvious problems with this plan, note that students barricading themselves in this way would have pointedly little interest in sharing their experiences as “diverse” people with their fellow white students. Even those who would consider this self-segregation justified will admit that these students are giving a thumbs down to the idea that they are valuable on campus as “diverse” lessons for others.

Or, in this recent opinion piece in The New York Times, a black physicist tells us that the presence of students of color in university classrooms should not require justification on the basis of the color of their skins.

Now, it’s unclear what new strategy she is proposing to ensure a representative number of such students on a campus if they are not singled out for their “diversity.” Be that as it may, here is one more person of color arguing against the admissions rationale considered so inviolable in discussions of affirmative action since Justice Lewis Powell created the “diversity” argument (rather briefly) in the Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke decision in 1978.

Finally, for all the appeal of the notion of black students earnestly teaching white students the view from beyond the affluent suburbs, black students quite often don’t like being expected to take on that role.

I have lost count of how many times a black student has told me, in question sessions after talks on race I have given, that being required to attest to the “black” view of things is, of all things, one way that college campuses are racist (!). Here is an articulate expression of this kind of complaint, very much commonplace since the ’80s. And truth to tell, how many of us would enjoy being singled out in any setting, all eyes upon us, as the one assumed to have intellectually valuable counsel?

Once again, the writer above likely isn’t aware that his declaration stands as a rebuke to a justification that likely played an important part in his evaluation for admission. However, it stands as a rebuke indeed.

Providing diversity lessons?

One might claim that students can teach white ones about their “diversity” in other ways, but prospects for that look glum from further reports one often hears.

Black students don’t like being asked questions about where they are “from,” about their hair care regimens, or being approached in general as if they belong to a distinct clan of persons, as we have learned from discussions of microaggression over the past few years. OK — but it’s unclear what space is left for these students providing diversity lessons for others.

So: There is the verdict from the very people singled out for their “diversity” by admissions committees. We might add that it’s hard to see how diverse viewpoints relate to not just some, but most, of what a college curriculum consists of. The black view of French irregular verbs? Systolic pressure? The usual counterargument here is that white students will benefit from the simple fact of interacting with colleagues of color — in, say, a lab — as preparation for interacting with people of color in the work world. On that one, I often wonder just what it is about black people that white students are to learn to watch out for.

A different kind of affirmative action

All this is clearly a mess. Now, one solution is to sigh that it’s “complicated” and change the subject. But that’s a cop-out we’ve been settling for for decades, and it’s clear that it gets none of us anywhere. We settle for this cop-out nonetheless out of fear that actually taking the issue by the horns will mean turning our backs on seeking social justice. But it doesn’t.

Rather, the facts on the ground — as opposed to in colleges’ multiracial publicity photos on websites and brochure covers — can be taken as support for the growing movement to base admissions preferences at universities on socioeconomics.

The originators of affirmative action policies would find this a familiar and compelling approach, given that until the Bakke decision, the whole policy was founded on a quest for reparation, making up for historic discrimination against black people.

In an America where it is becoming increasingly difficult to see poverty, the “underclass,” and historic disadvantage as having solely a black face, restoring affirmative action as an anti-poverty policy is progressive.

Some assail this approach as cluelessly “race-blind,” but they’re wrong. Fears that hardship-based affirmative action would mean black and Latino students being all but eliminated on college campuses in favor of working-class whites are overblown, as is clear from rigorous treatments such as this one. Rather, letting go of the ever-fragile diversity rationale would, while leaving college campuses with healthy populations of black and Latino students, finally let us exhale.

To wit: no more pretending there is a black take on Jane Austen or differential quotients, or that white students having black students in their classes about these things will teach them something useful for when they meet black colleagues at the law firm they work for after graduation. No more singling out black kids to talk about “the” black experience. No more skirting by the inconvenient fact that an affluent black student is rather insignificantly “diverse” compared to a white one who grew up with one parent in a trailer park.

In a nutshell, quite a few “diverse” students are — whether unwittingly or not — opposed to a key rationale for their recruitment and admission, and the whole diversity rationale has always been extremely fragile anyway.

Affirmative action must be preserved, but what we need to affirm in the 21st century is disadvantage. There are those who will insist that such a view is conservative — yet it is them who will seem backward in the future.

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.


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