Jay Fleitman: Wayward arguments about race litter responses to Gregory Clay column in Gazette
NORTHAMPTON — The editorial page of the Gazette was replete with letters in response to Gregory Clay’s July 17 column that were stunning for their anger and vitriol. It was unsettling to read.
The editors of the Gazette were excoriated by these readers for having committed a transgression that breached an unspoken agreement that would have banned a discussion of racial politics that differs from accepted liberal dogma. One writer wrote “you should be ashamed for publishing such blatantly racist garbage” while another was “sickened” and wondered if she was really reading the Daily Hampshire Gazette. There was surprise that “the local newspaper would give space to such hateful and ignorant words ... there was no place in the Gazette for such racism. Our community deserves an apology and a retraction for printing this column.” Another author opined, “I do not wish to pay for racism ... I am close to canceling my subscription.” Yet another writer was “appalled, shocked, and disappointed.” And there was more.
The most pointed attacks were directed at the author of the column. The core of these attacks were that the author was a racist for his opinion that the jury verdict in the Trayvon Martin case was correct, and his observations on the problems of crime in black America. The words racist and racism appeared over and over in these letters.
It has already been identified on these pages that the writer of this column, an assistant sports editor for the McClatchy-Tribune News Service, is himself African-American. I think that it is reasonable to give most of the letter-writers the benefit of the doubt that they did not know. Clay’s background when they made their accusations, as it is hard to imagine even the most ardent of liberals would presume to lecture a member of the African-American community on how morally unacceptable his opinions are relative to his own community.
One letter-writer was aware of Clay’s race when she wrote of her outrage at his piece, and described him as a “self-hating African-American.” This is a nasty characterization of someone who writes of his own experiences.
The nature of these letters published had me return to Clay’s guest column several times to try and understand what he wrote that engendered this heat. I have no interest in relitigating the Trayvon Martin case, but it seems that his observations on difficulties in the black community are likely to have engendered these passions.
The heart of Clay’s column seemed to be in this lament: “If Zimmerman were named ‘Smith’ and black, would there be mass protests nationwide? No way. The facts of life are these: Most black males in this country are killed by other black males within their own communities. Most of the assailants are between the ages of 15 and 34. Why aren’t the protesters marching about that from San Francisco to New York?” This is a heartfelt observation about what he perceives to be the true plight in his community, and that the Zimmerman-Martin tragedy pales in comparison.
I am more interested here in the nature of the responses than in the column itself. Even if Clay had been white, the level of assault using the accusation of racism was shocking. The term is now used so loosely as to have lost its importance as the identification of a social injustice in need of correction.
The accusation of racism has come to be used as a hammer to destroy the individual who expresses an opinion about virtually anything that touches on race that differs from left-wing orthodoxy. The person so identified is rendered vile, his opinions are unworthy of consideration, and he should be shunned.
The accusation of racism is deployed to terminate and win arguments. As a conservative, I’ve seen this happen over and over. For example, disagree with a policy of President Obama, and you do it because of racism. You are now meant to be on the defensive, your policy disagreement is now tainted.
Employing the accusation of racism can be intended to elevate the accuser to a higher moral ground than the person whose opinion is found in disagreement. We have certainly become a nation in which those who have taken offense by any opinion or action have become predominant.
We are the world’s first nation governed by an “Offendocracy,” and difference in opinion has become intolerable. As such, the free use of powerful words such as “racist” has poisoned the waters of public discourse when applied with so little care.
Since this column is about taking offense, I must bring up the political cartoon recently seen on this page, in which an elephant representing Republicans is portrayed as wishing that only white people vote. This is clearly an allusion to Republicans as racists in seeking voter identification in the United States.
Since the point of my writing a column is to represent the conservative viewpoint, let me be clear that our interest in implementing voter identification processes does not have to do with suppressing minority voters, but does have everything to do with a profound distrust over widespread voter fraud.
Jay Fleitman, M.D., lives in Northampton. His column appears the first Tuesday of the month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.