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Nov 05, 2012

Someone New is Working the Edges of a Post-Racial Society

Now that the Chicago teachers strike has been resolved, the Monday morning quarterbacking can begin.  One question of likely interest to readers of this blog is whether the Chicago Tribune should have refused to publish this ad:

The interesting thing here is that the Tribune did refuse to publish the ad.  Given that the paper has not exactly been known to be either a supporter of unions or a bastion of unbiased journalism, or in such sound financial shape that they can kiss off full page ads, they must have believed that something important was at stake.  Supporters of the ad say that the reason given was the ad’s “‘racial overtones,'” but that “‘the message of the ad has nothing to do with race.'”

And it is even more interesting to consider that they may both be right.  It seems that both sides agree that the photograph of The Stand at the Schoolhouse Door was all about race.  Alabama Governor George Wallace may not have liked unions either, but he was standing to stop racial integration–first, last, and always.  But a photo of injustice and intransigence in one domain such as race relations certainly could be appropriate to use in another domain–for example, progressives would not be likely object to the image being used to oppose gender discrimination.  And enough change has occurred socially and demographically that one can imagine that a group once oppressed now could themselves be part of an organization that is blocking reform.

Indeed, some progressives have argued unions are obstructing progress. Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer set out this conundrum in two sentences: “Unions are a crucially important part of our economy and society.  Unions have become overly protectionist and are in need of enormous amounts of reform” (The Gardens of Democracy, p. 7).  So, one could conceivably use a racially charged photograph with a post-racial intention.  And one might believe that the message of the ad had nothing to do about race, because “message” would mean what those making the ad intended to say.

But as we all learn, it is easy to say more than one intends, not least because the meaning of what is said (and shown) also depends on how it is interpreted.  It could well be that the Chicago Tribune was connected closely enough to its readership and its community to believe, perhaps correctly, that this photo from the civil rights era could be incendiary or at least distort and damage the negotiations and public discussion by making race more of a factor than was right.  More to the point, some might have felt that its use was a slap in the face for African-Americans: indeed, how could the ad not be insulting when it equated union negotiations over working conditions with white resistance on behalf of a society that was profoundly unjust, inhumane, vicious, and destructive, and suggested that poor schooling was not the legacy of racism and poverty but rather the work of a multiracial union.

To which the reply would be, again: “But that’s not what we meant.”  And it might not have been; if you look at the other ads put out by The Center for Union Facts, they do not look like a Tea Party organization.  I mention the Tea Party for good reason, as it has provided many–way too many–examples of people making patently racist jokes, drawings, Photoshopped photographs, and other vile statements about Barack Obama and then claiming that they were not being racist.  And maybe they really did believe that about themselves: to lack that much sensitivity requires staggering deficits in both knowledge and empathy, but ya know. . . .

But I digress.  Some scholars of rhetoric argue that persuasion, and particularly the ethical dimension of persuasion, comes down to our assessment of the speaker’s character.  (See, for example, For the Sake of Argument, by Eugene Garver.)  Thus, once you get enough evidence of a person’s character, you can start making judgments about whether to trust what they say, and what they say about what they say.  Some of that evidence is provided in the saying, but sometimes you simply can’t tell.  In the case before us, one photograph intentionally taken out of its original context may not provide enough evidence to judge.  Or once again, where you stand may depend on where you sit.

In any case, we might want to avoid becoming too wrapped up in one photograph and one ad.  On the one hand, it is but one example of many, many cases of how people–particularly conservatives, but some progressives as well–are working the edges of the idea that the old identitarian politics no longer apply since Obama has moved beyond them.  On the other hand, there are many photographs that suggest that something beautiful already has happened: that a multiracial society really is emerging in the US.  If that is so, it doesn’t resolve the controversy about the ad, or about how to best improve urban schools.  It is interesting, however, that to see that change you need look no farther than the Chicago Tribune slide show on the teachers strike.



Someone New is Working the Edges of a Post-Racial Society


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