Christina’s Case: Racial insults deter productive political discourse

Christina Coleburn, Deputy Opinion Editor

Another instance of unproductive discourse took place on Twitter over the weekend. This time, the exchange involved racially charged insults and political ideology. Jamilah Lemieux, senior editor at Ebony magazine, and Raffi Williams, deputy press secretary for the Republican National Committee, began tweeting over the announcement that black conservatives Ben Carson and Armstrong Williams are launching a political magazine. When Lemieux conveyed her dissatisfaction with the venture, Williams said he “hoped [she] would encourage diversity of thought.” Lemieux then referred to Williams — who is black — as a “white dude,” before dismissing Williams’ views and comparing her conservative detractors to “roaches.” The RNC insisted that Lemieux apologize. Ebony’s editors issued an apology to Williams and black Republicans on March 28.

Lemieux’s comments were objectionable in several respects. In addition to being exceedingly personal, they unnecessarily brought racially disparaging banter into a discussion that could — and should — have remained on policy. References that disrespect or unfairly typecast individuals of color appear too often in political discourse. These cruel manifestations have unfortunately appeared on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Whether right-leaning blacks are contemptuously called “Uncle Toms” or left-leaning blacks are insolently told that they are fed propaganda on a “liberal plantation,” these characterizations are unacceptable, inappropriate and prevent pundits from effectively discussing solutions to substantive issues.

Representatives from both parties should be cognizant of the fact that racially charged remarks neither elevate discourse nor significantly shift the demographics of the political landscape. The use of such deprecatory terminology is unlikely to convert black voters of any ideological persuasion. It can only succeed in callously alienating an increasingly critical part of the electorate. Democrats and Republicans alike should see these derogatory terms for what they are — distractions.

Instead of relying on these imprudent classifications, both parties should substantiate their proclaimed commitment to minorities by focusing on issues that could positively impact lives. Initiatives to repair the economy, mend broken families and address disproportionately high incarceration rates would indicate meaningful attempts to combat the problems that have plagued some members of the black community. Formulating compelling solutions to poverty — which blacks suffer from at a rate of 27.2 percent, the highest of any ethnic group — would also serve both parties and the populace better than racially charged insults. Furthermore, solving these issues requires cooperation between Republicans and Democrats, not the effort of one party alone. When Republicans and Democrats shift their focus, they will find that they can address issues that are relevant to minorities, as well as Americans of all backgrounds. Remarks on Twitter that dismiss facilitating these bipartisan conversations are counterproductive to progress.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 31 print edition. Christina Coleburn is a deputy opinion editor. Christina’s Case is published every Monday. Email her at ccoleburn@nyunews.com.

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