MSR readers may recall an “In Our View” commentary a few months back that identified something we called “comfort zone racism” as one contributor to Minnesota’s national reputation for mistreating its African American citizens. We called it quite frankly a feature of the New Jim Crow and invited outside study of how efficiently it operates up here in the North Country.
Now we can thank Minnesota’s Center of the American Experiment (CAE) for providing a classic demonstration of comfort zone racism in action.
The setting is a posh dining room in the downtown Minneapolis Hilton Hotel where on February 18 around 300 people, at least 95 percent of them White, gathered to hear guest speaker Jason Riley. A Black conservative from the right-wing Manhattan Institute and a Wall Street Journal/Fox News pundit, Riley told the CAE folks what they surely expected to hear from such a source.
For a fuller account of Riley’s remarks, read Isaac Peterson’s March 3 MSR story “Event speaker calls racism ‘Black people’s excuse for failure.’” In our view, and judging from comments on the story thus far, most of Riley’s remarks insulted Black people’s integrity and intelligence and humanity and wrongly blamed Black people for what’s been wreaking havoc on their lives and communities.
Riley dismissed the importance of racism as little more than Black people’s excuse for failure, implying the real thing is not much of a problem anymore. He informed his audience there is so much violence in Black communities because ‘Blacks don’t value Black lives.’ He reassured these White folks it’s Black culture that’s the real problem in urban America (not institutional racism, lack of living-wage jobs, mass incarceration, inadequate investment in public education, and so forth).
Riley assured them Black people were better off back in the 1950s before all that government meddling with poverty programs and Medicare and Medicaid and the like — back in the Jim Crow Eisenhower days. No need to worry about Black Lives Matter — it’s just a slogan, going nowhere. Blacks mistreated by police? Don’t you believe it, good people — it’s nonsense. Black folks are easily misled — just look at how easily the Democrats have brainwashed them!
He was allowed to deliver these pronouncements with no opposing views or dissenting voices, offering comforting reassurance to all those present who came in believing Black people are to blame for their own problems and could leave feeling smugly confirmed in those beliefs. After all, a Black fellow said it’s true, and he should know.
Of course the CAE had to go all the way to New York to find a Black fellow who would stand up and say such insulting things in public about his people, decline any interviews, sign some books and hop a plane back out of town. Riley’s admirers there in the Hilton seemed to find no fault in his remarks judging from their enthusiastic applause and the long line to buy a signed book.
What is most apparent to us in all this is the great disconnect it reveals between how Riley’s remarks were received by these two audiences, the select business-leisure crowd with the latitude to indulge in such “educational” luncheons at the Hilton, and the readers of Riley’s remarks in the MSR or on the MSR website — for the most part people who can’t make it to weekday events downtown and who weren’t invited anyway.
Those at the Hilton paid to hear a Black man blame Black people’s problems on Black people — brainwashed as Black people are, of course, by dastardly liberals. Most of those present appeared happy to receive this news, which relieved them of any responsibility for the distress of Black people in America. Mitch Pearlstein, CAE founder, certainly seemed impressed with Riley — see Isaac’s interview with Pearlstein in last week’s issue. This is truly a stellar example of comfort zone racism: keeping White people isolated in secure bubbles of Minnesota Nice where any real racial conversation is not on the agenda.
Our intent here is to offer constructive criticism, and in all honesty we must say the CAE people appear woefully out of touch with how their speaker’s views come across to the great majority of Black Americans, who are resolutely and wisely unwilling to blame themselves for all the troubles they find themselves and their communities in. They know they did not vote for the trade deals that sent millions of living-wage American jobs to Mexico, India, China — no mention of that from Mr. Riley, nor anything about the astronomical income and wealth gaps between most working Black people and those who pay Mr. Riley’s salary at the Manhattan Institute (or, for that matter, the salaries of those in that room at the Hilton).
In our view, the Center of the American Experiment would benefit enormously by opening itself to a less comfort-zone-confined, more spirited and respectful engagement with the Black community. We suggest abandoning Hilton weekday lunch hours and bringing speakers out in the evenings when and where regular working people, not just a downtown lunch crowd, can listen, learn and challenge. Get out of your comfort zone!
Don’t shield your speakers from opposition — encourage spirited debate! Don’t limit your audience to downtowners on an extended lunch hour — come to the Capri over North or Sabathani on the South Side. Get democratic and let the people hear all sides. Let’s see how your Rileys hold up against some real opposition — we can recommend several excellent local griots who in our view, could more than hold their own in a fair exchange of views with Mr. Riley.
Isn’t the Center for the American Experiment a champion of democracy? Isn’t the free expression of ideas what democracy is all about? Encourage real critical thought instead of complacent security. Help free Minnesota from comfort zone racism.