Race and literacy

By | May 21, 2012

A couple days ago over at HardballTalk, Craig Calcaterra wrote about some controversy surrounding Joe Ricketts, the patriarch of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs. Ricketts is apparently very anti-Obama and is using his wealth to spearhead some efforts to get a new president elected this fall. One of the tactics his group is considering involves playing up the relationship between Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the controversial minister from Chicago who got a lot of press during the 2008 election.

The New York Times said this:

The $10 million plan, one of several being studied by Mr. Ricketts, includes preparations for how to respond to the charges of race-baiting it envisions if it highlights Mr. Obama’s former ties to Mr. Wright, who espouses what is known as “black liberation theology.”

The group suggested hiring as a spokesman an “extremely literate conservative African-American” who can argue that Mr. Obama misled the nation by presenting himself as what the proposal calls a “metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln.”

Calcaterra quoted that same chunk from the Times, and then he said this:

Theory: if you specify that you need a “literate” black person — like you need to specify that you don’t want one of those many illiterate ones — you probably do need to “respond to charges of race-baiting,” because you probably are engaging in a bunch of racist baloney.

I am not going to argue this from a political standpoint, but I am going to argue it from a semantical one. I have a ton of respect for Craig as a writer, a person, and a baseball fan. I think he and I would enjoy hanging out and talking baseball over beer (for him) and lemonade (for me), because while we don’t have much in common other than a deep love of baseball, there’s not much else you really need, ya know?

But I think he’s wrong here. Am I saying Joe Ricketts isn’t a racist? Nope, I don’t know the man at all and don’t even know much about him, so I can’t say one way or the other. What I disagree with is Craig’s point that “if you specify that you need a ‘literate’ black person … you probably are engaging in a bunch of racist baloney.”

Here’s the thing: “literate” has several definitions. Yes, the most common one is “able to read and write,” but I can’t imagine that they’re using that definition here. If nothing else, the use of “extremely” tips it off. “Can he read?” “Oh yes, EXTREMELY!” When you’re talking about the ability to read, you have two or three options: literate, illiterate, and occasionally semi-literate. Once you can read, we stop grading you in terms of literacy.

So what could they have meant? On dictionary.com, there are five definitions for “literate” when used as an adjective. The first one is “able to read and write.” The second has to do with knowing literature, which probably isn’t what they’re going for here. The next three:

3. characterized by skill, lucidity, polish, or the like: His writing is literate but cold and clinical.
4. having knowledge or skill in a specified field: literate in computer usage.
5. having an education; educated.

In my opinion, any one of those definitions would fit the context perfectly, and not a single one of them would be objectionable or offensive. Imagine this hypothetical conversation, where they are coming up with a list of requirements for the person they are looking for:

Man 1: Okay, well, he needs to be conservative, of course.

Others: Of course.

Man 2: And it would probably be most effective if he were African-American, to make it clear that we don’t object to Reverend Wright’s race, but to his speech and actions.

Others: That makes perfect sense.

Man 3: And he would definitely need to be extremely literate.

Man 4: You mean able to read and write?

Man 3: Of course not, you moron. The ability to read and write is an implied minimum requirement to do anything in this world. What I mean, of course, is that we need someone who is a polished speaker and writer and who has expertise in the subject matter. Perhaps a law degree from an Ivy League school might draw another nice parallel with Obama.

Man 1: Okay, anything else? Here’s what I have so far: extremely literate, conservative, and African-American.

Others: Sounds good.

Did the final wording end up unfortunate? Absolutely. In an environment where racism DOES exist and racism is often seen even where it doesn’t exist, it was silly to put “extremely literate” and “African-American” in the same sentence. But just as it’s possible to disagree with Barack Obama’s politics without any opinion one way or the other on his race, it is possible to look for someone who is both “extremely literate” and “African-American” without implying that African-Americans in general have a tendency one way or the other with regards to the ability to read and write.

2 thoughts on “Race and literacy

  1. Craig Calcaterra

    We had a bit of this conversation in the comments to my post, and I found the parsing of the word literate — or, more specifically, the phrase “extremely literate” — to be sort of beside the point.

    The pitch was to create video for TV or the web. How exactly, do the makers of these ads plan to established the ??extreme literacy? of their spokesman? His education level or acumen with the subject matter? Film him in front of his bookshelf to show us that he reads Tolstoy? Perhaps have him hold up his M.F.A degree or a white paper he wrote on the political efficacy of civil disobedience in America?

    No, the intent is to get a black man who speaks clearly. That is all. It’s a spokesman job. They want to play up the ??articulate black man? meme that old racists like to use when they mean ??a black person who shockingly agrees with me.? Someone who does not invoke the racial stereotypes of how black people speak. The goal is to contrast this man against the stereotypical scary black people the targets of the ad think about all the damn time.

    This is critical here, because the people making this pitch know damn well what they’re doing. They’re trying to make Obama out as some crypto radical insurgent. To make him some scary political “other.” His race and what those scary radical black preachers are saying in those churches to which we good people are not welcome are a key part of that. And they know damn well that making such an attack, they need to show that, while they are appealing to base racial feelings in voters, they themselves are not racists.

    So you get your articulate black man who threads the needle: he deflects claims of racism on the one side and doesn’t alienate the intended audience of the ad on the other. An “Extremely literate black man. You know, like Sidney Poitier or Bill Cosby. One of those credits to their race.”

    But sure, if you believe that the ideas was to find a ??very well-read? black man for the ads, as if such a thing could be determined, be my guest.

  2. Jeff J. Snider Post author

    Two things:

    1) All of this is essentially beside MY point, which was that it is possible to look for a literate black man without implying that black men in general are illiterate. It can be just like a casting call for a skinny white blonde man or an Asian-American female with a law degree. There’s no implication in either of those that most blonde white men are fat, or that most skinny white men are blonde, or that most Asian-Americans with law degrees are women, or anything else. It’s just specificity — this is what I am looking for. My point (as I stated in the post a couple times) was NOT that these people are or aren’t racists — just that your blanket assumption that the joining of “extremely literate” and “African-American” is ALWAYS racist is incorrect.

    2) You say a spokesman’s job is to “speak clearly,” but even that can mean multiple things. When I think of a spokesman and his duty to speak clearly, I am far more concerned with his ability to make a point clearly than with his actual diction. And the key to making a clear point is expertise in the subject matter. So when you ask how they plan to establish the guy’s extreme literacy, I think the answer is easy: have him say things that make it clear he is an expert in the subject matter. It’s not an artificial demonstration of books or degrees or anything — it’s having him serve his purpose, which is to know what he’s talking about.

    Anyway, like I said, my post was not about the politics or racism of these people. It was about your implication that ANY mention of literacy in a black man is a racist implication that black people are illiterate. Whether these people are racists or not is beside my point.

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