We know white supremacists marching down main street with lit torches, shouting racial epithets, is an obvious display of intolerance, and hard to rationalize.
But every day racism – particularly racism uttered or displayed by a friend or respected colleague – is dumped like pieces of excrement in the public square while we pretend that we don’t see it or smell it.
We not only pretend that we can’t see it or smell it. We insist it’s not there at all. We create backlash narratives in which the perpetrator of the racism is a victim while those who call out the racism are at fault.
Into this arena entered venerated journalist Tom Brokaw, with the echoes of how we need to have “conversations” about race and culture in our country but we don’t really have them. If we did, we’d be able to talk about how Brokaw really did make comments about Latinos that were prejudiced, at the least, and quite possibly racist.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
A legend at NBC News for decades, Brokaw said on “Meet the Press” Sunday of Latinos: “You know, they ought not to be just codified in their communities but make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English, and that they feel comfortable in the communities. And that’s going to take outreach on both sides (Republican and Democrat), frankly.”
The problem here is that Brokaw was parroting a negative – and inaccurate – stereotype about an entire ethnic group. It certainly wasn’t a stereotype that projects positively on the people Brokaw was describing. And if you look up the definition of prejudice, Brokaw’s hot take qualifies. And racism, according to Merriam Webster, is: “A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
When one considers that the American-born children of immigrants from Latin America acquire English by age 5 at pretty much 100 percent rate and that Latinos voting numbers surged in California, and that the numbers of Latinos applying to college is rising, the 78-year-old Brokaw is clinging to old notions easily rebuked by facts.
Personally, I felt for him as he was pummeled on social media. Brokaw has been a journalist’s journalist for as long as I can remember. He’s done great work and has always seemed like someone who would not cheer or make excuses for the rise in white supremacy in America. He has reported news, and then became news last April when he was accused of sexual misconduct. He denied the allegations, and has returned in his special correspondent role on the Sunday panel discussion news show at the network where he had been an anchor until stepping down in 2004.
But then he responded with a series of bizarre tweets, apologizing, invoking his coverage of Cesar Chavez, explaining, and noting his “tweet portal is whack.” He just made it worse.
My sympathy waned when other elite – and white – people in the media begin dismissing criticism of him. “Tom Brokaw isn’t capable of saying something racist,” said Sally Quinn, the former Washington Post columnist. Many others adopted similar positions in defense of Brokaw and they were wrong.
This is the power of white privilege – the demand for a conversation and then shutting the door when it occurs.
For a long time many people of color have had to live with this reality in our work places, at school, and among our social groups. For years we learned that sometimes we had to shut up when our bosses or other “respected” people made terrible observations about races and cultures that they didn’t really understand.
We made difficult choices that went something like this: Am I going to contradict my boss or some VIP when he or she is completely wrong, tone deaf, ignorant and racist? Or am I going to save my verbal bullets to fight battles that affect me personally as opposed to using them for battles where my ethnic group is maligned or – even worse – dismissed completely?
At the age of 56, with more career miles behind me than ahead of me, I can honestly say sometimes I should have spoken up and didn’t. So now I do.
So did “PBS NewsHour” White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor later in the show. “I would just say that we also need to adjust what we think of as America,” she said. “You’re talking about assimilation. I grew up in Miami, where people speak Spanish, but their kids speak English. And the idea that we think Americans can only speak English, as if Spanish and other languages wasn’t always part of America, is, in some ways, troubling.”
And I stopped feeling sorry for Brokaw when he failed to apologize properly for his clear mistake and when social media was lit up by inspiring voices of color who no longer want to be silent.
You say you want to have a conversation about race and ethnicity? OK, then let’s have one. Brokaw was wrong. And if we can’t even get to a place where that truth is accepted then, well, how can we be surprised when white supremacists find comfort in the White House?
How can we truly strive for diversity when important, and otherwise good people have terrible ideas about it? How can we fight the worst aspects of Trumpism when there are willing co-conspirators of intolerance who deny obvious examples of it?
None of us is saying all white people are racist. But we are saying that some white folks refuse to see it or acknowledge it. We never become allies against intolerance when some of us accept certain forms of it. So what do you say? Are we on the same side? Do you really want to talk?
I’m ready. Many of us are.