Talking about Race

Let's ask some questions and get serious

We are urged to have serious conversations about race, and we should. In this post, gentle reader, I push a bit to make them more serious. Let’s bypass the cant of the major political parties. And let’s be on watch both for numbing inertia and for hijacked populism. Objectivity helps, even if Roger Cohen, of The New York Times, writes “I have never believed much in the notion of journalistic ‘objectivity’” (June 13).

First comes context. There has been a conversation, serious and contested, about the nature of the human person for millennia. How we think about race is one dimension of our struggle for self-understanding.

Next come some preliminaries.

  • A conversation involves both speaking and listening. Farewell to Twitter trampling!
  • To be sure, we do find lots of loud quarreling. As Chesterton said, people quarrel because they don’t know how to argue.
  • What we need are sound arguments, that is, arguments with a valid form and true premises.

In the search for true premises, let’s ask questions that people often dodge. Today’s lead question is this: just what counts as systemic racism?  To test contending definitions, here are three “nettlesome” follow ups.

  • Are many of the people we know practicing systematic racism?
  • Are most of the people with whom we disagree politically practicing systemic racism?
  • Is Planned Parenthood engaged in systemic racism?

Here is another question-generator. Law enforcement agencies spend $136 billion every year on fatigue-related medical conditions among their employees.[1] What do our police departments need? To calibrate our answers, consider some follow-up questions.

  • Do we know any police officers?
  • Do we rely on our local police department?
  • Can we outline what “defunding” the police might mean where we live?

Ready for more questions? We know that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. For now, let’s stick with the statistics. Just how well are we able to evaluate statistics, including the one cited a few lines above? Pop Quiz: How would you evaluate the following statistics?

  • The ratio of white family wealth to Black family wealth is higher today than at the start of the century.[2]
  • The nation’s imprisonment rate is at its lowest level in more than two decades. The greatest decline has come among black Americans, whose imprisonment rate has decreased 34% since 2006.[3]
  • A police officer is 18½ times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer.[4]

Here’s a penultimate puzzle. People and social movements can change, for better and for worse, but to really understand either we need to know their history. Even then, discernment can be hard. We need to avoid the ad hominem fallacy and at the same time remember that bad ideas have bad consequences. How discerning are we? Consider a few test cases.

  • FDR’s first Supreme Court nominee was Justice Hugo Black. But Justice Black, who served effectively, was once a member of the KKK. Does it matter?
  • Randall Terry, a key figure in Operation Rescue, once sold used cars. Does it matter?
  • In its manifesto “What We Believe,” Black Lives Matter has declared that “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.” Does it matter?

Now comes a last question. Is it “too soon” to joke about race? A test case: “Did you hear the one about the kid in a ‘mixed’ family (like mine)? Said it was great because it made colorless people more colorful.” Jokes, of course, have a context. I share this one with a tip of the hat to Frank Shyong, of the Los Angeles Times. He opines that “what white people decide whiteness means” is critical for real change.[5]

I’d say that whiteness and blackness and “otherness” mean precious little in comparison to being made in God’s image.




[2] Brookings Institution, “Examining the Black-white Wealth Gap,” Feb. 27, 2020.

[3] Pew Research Center, “Black imprisonment rate in the U.S. has fallen by a third since 2006,” May 6, 2020.

[4] Heather MacDonald, Real Clear Politics, June 5, 2020.

[5] Frank Shyong, “What does it mean to be white,” Los Angeles Times, June 15, 2020, B1.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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