Okay. As soon as the man they call Kleinheider went up with this, I knew it was trouble. And I should know better than to do a post on a topic as clearly raw and sensitive as race and race relations, especially when it’s drawn from something written by someone as capable of getting people to say stupid things as Kleinheider. But the reaction to his headline has so far surpassed the relative early calm (maybe 6 comments in the first half hour) that I can’t refrain from comment because I find that it reveals how important that context is.
Let’s start with some disclosure: I know all three of the parties involved (Kleinheider, Powell, and Turner), and, complicating matters further, I also live in the 58th state house district. Further, until recently, I was an employee of SouthComm.
Now, the Internet is trouble to begin with. The call/response model of email, forums, and comment sections are passive-aggressive by nature, and the anonymity offered in a variety of forums, including Post Politics, adds more noise than signal. So we’ve got that working against us.
Fortunately, there are some case studies we can examine. There are three imperfect analogies, here, and two of them happen to be local. The first is actually one in which Kleinheider took heat for his coverage, and that was the Sherri Goforth affair. The next is one that involved a blogger dispatched by a local university (and subsequently resulting in active promotion of an unholy marriage between hateful wingnuts and Baker-style Republicans across Tennessee). And the last is a fellow by the name of Don Imus.
In the case of Ms. Goforth, she was caught distributing an image that specifically and intentionally disrespected the nation’s first black president. In the case of Hobbs, a stupid cartoon resulted in his short-term departure from a job and medium-term leveraging his cartoonish attitudes about life and politics into an entire wedge of a statewide political movement. In the case of Don Imus, he specifically used a racial epithet to describe in general terms a women’s basketball team. In two of the three cases, the offender was fired and in the other, the offender was reprimanded.
Here’s the difference, though, between someone like Bill Hobbs and A.C. Kleinheider: Bill Hobbs promotes a specific, partisan political agenda that relies for success on people who respond to cynical race-baiting that can be subtle and implicit enough that Hobbs can easily play the reverse race card. A.C. Kleinheider promotes no discernible political agenda other than preying on the dearly held political dogmas of ideologues of all stripes at their most fragile and sensitive points, and as he would probably tell you, in his agenda, there is no success.
I spent a lot of time yesterday examining the headline and the context trying to figure out if Kleinheider was intentionally maligning either Powell or Turner in a manner similar to Goforth or Imus. At the end of the day, I don’t think he was. I can understand why Jason Powell and Steven Turner would take extraordinary personal offense because being singled out is never comfortable, and being singled out under the umbrella of insensitive language of any type is rightly infuriating.
But imagine if yesterday’s post hadn’t happened the way it did. Imagine if Kleinheider had gone up with just his post of atonement from today, explicitly elaborating on his personal perspective. There is no way that clear, lucid thinking on race in politics would’ve exposed how raw all our nerves are about this discussion. I’ve got a list of “black friend” credentials at least as long as Robin Smith and Chris Ferrell, but part of my response to this whole episode is not being compelled to enumerate it here in order merely to recognize that there are important, interesting, and too often unspoken issues involving race in general but particularly in politics, which is nominally about representation.
Do we benefit from jumping all over someone like Kleinheider, who might suffer the same sort of essential racism most of us who exist in largely self-selecting isolated communities with little diversity suffer, when he chooses to use a word we all know is wrong in a context likely to offend multiple parties? He clearly was intentionally making a comment about race. Does it help to scream “That’s racist!” at a scenario where commentary about race was so clear? Or is it more helpful to isolate the conditions in which race as a form of hate-based discrimination and even crime as socially unacceptable, especially since it’s quite apparent that Kleinheider’s commentary is socially unacceptable? I mean, is there really a risk that Kleinheider’s headline indicates that “blackface” is making some kind of genuine (i.e., non-satirical) comeback in common usage or activity?
I have to admit: I’m frequently uncomfortable engaging in discussions regarding race. I’m uncomfortable that people who contacted me personally in the wake of Kleinheider’s post will misinterpret my writing on the topic. I’m concerned about choosing each word and each phrase precisely in an attempt to express my meaning. I’m concerned that I will inadvertently say something offensive. And I’m interested in the different dynamics exposed by the contrast among black/white race dynamics, black/Latino race dynamics, and white/Latino race dynamics, among all the other dynamics that exist in the American, Southern, Tennessean, and Nashvillian experiences. Finally, I’m concerned about the things that will be left unspoken regarding race dynamics, particularly in Nashville, even after the hubbub over this lone blog post has blown over.
And that’s all as it should be. The entire point of political correctness as I take it is not to enable a generation of people to cry out, “That’s racist!” at every utterance of something off-color. It is, ideally, an opportunity for each individual to come to terms with the fact that if one is not comfortable saying things in public, it’s worth considering what any level of comfort saying them in private might reveal. Just as the ultimate goal of endorsing diversity shouldn’t be to fulfill quotas; it should be to reveal to people of all walks of life that their life experiences are likely quite different from those of people with whom they don’t often have occasion to spend much time with.
Also, I think that though we pretend that the internet never forgets, this isn’t the first time that Kleinheider has even used the word. In a headline, no less. Not as much controversy erupted over, “Bush in Blackface?” Wonder why? Plenty of room for a discussion on that topic alone.
So what now? I don’t expect my post to have much impact. I’m no self-described expert on race relations. I’m just a guy. But my life experiences indicate we’ve got a long way to go, and my hope is that when it’s revealed through an ugly process just how far, that by continuing to discuss things in a mature, open, authentic (i.e., not anonymous) manner, maybe we make just a little bit of progress. And though he catalyzed this post in a way I personally would never have felt comfortable doing, I’m actually comfortable giving Kleinheider a little bit of credit for whatever progress we make in this moment.
Just as I’m comfortable giving both Jason Powell and Steven Turner a lot of credit for having the courage to take on an entrenched incumbent in whose district I now live. At the end of the day, after all, this is still about politics. On different occasions regarding Rep. Pruitt, I have thanked her, I have made requests of her, and not once have I ever heard from her. So I’m watching the race closely. Now I’m even wondering if this episode has raised Turner’s profile.
Finally, there’s the question of editorial propriety and publisher accountability. I’m terrible at being an absolutist, which both gives me a lot of outs and probably weakens perceived integrity. Generally speaking, though, I value editorial freedom above conservative business interests as expressed through editorial policies. The success of the institution of Kleinheider exists in part because he is largely allowed to be Kleinheider. If Post Politics resembled Google News, what fun would that be? Kleinheider both covers and creates controversy, and he walks the line before the paint has dried, leaving a mess when he crosses it in either direction.
All that said, I think that the most appropriate action for SouthComm to take would be to host a beer summit featuring Kleinheider, Jason Powell, Steve Turner, and Mark Mays.