Bill Kristol’s Call For Benign Neglect On Race

William Kristol’s latest column for the New York Times responds to Barack Obama’s recent speech on race and actually advocates sweeping the whole issue under the nation’s rug.

Kristol begins with an itemization of bits of Obama’s speech that don’t make him shudder. In fact, you can feel the shuddering vibrate off the page as he uses this editorial ploy to list his objections to the thoughtful questions Obama raised in his forthright address. But the real message Kristol espouses is prominently displayed in his headline: “Let’s Not and Say We Did.”

What he is referring to is engaging in a national conversation about race as initiated by Obama last Tuesday. Kristol declares that:

“The only part of the speech that made me shudder was this sentence: ‘But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.’

As soon as I heard that, I knew what we’d have to endure. I knew that there would be a stampede of editorial boards, columnists and academics rushing not to ignore race.”

In Kristol’s tunnel-vision view of the world, a discussion of race is an ordeal to be “endured” rather than an opportunity for reconciliation and understanding. To Kristol, the prospect of pursuing real progress on civil rights is akin to shudder-inducing torture.

His suggestion that editorial boards and others would respond to Obama with a “stampede” of articles thoroughly fails to observe that such articles were appearing before Obama even gave the speech. In fact, had Obama said nothing, there would have been a stampede of columns brimming with outrage at his neglect of such an important matter, with Kritsol leading the charge. The issues that Kristol regards as important also deserve some attention:

“What we need instead are sober, results-oriented debates about economics, social mobility, education, family policy and the like.”

Those are the very issues that Obama tackled in subsequent speeches last week. But rather than guide the debate into matters that he agrees “can lead to real change,” Kristol chooses to focus on the issue that makes him shudder.

Kristol’s solution to racial problems in America today is to reach back forty years to the Nixon era artifice of “benign neglect.” That was the Pat Moynihan hatched notion that there was too much talk about race and that, if everyone would just shut up, we could make some real progress. But the evidence that that plan would not work is present in the fact that Kristol himself won’t shut up. He and hundreds of other pundits are still choosing to write about race when other pressing matters, like the economy and war, have been raised by all three candidates after the groundbreaking speech by Obama.

There is a reason that race is being so closely followed by politicians, the people, and the press. It is still a sensitive issue for many Americans and, in case Kristol hasn’t noticed, we have a candidate who could become the first black president in the country’s history. I, for one, am not afraid to endure a stampede of public discourse on race. It would be far better than Kristol’s advice to keep our heads firmly planted in the sand.

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