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Black Like Me

Zadie Smith writes that Americans “live in a mixed society” and that “there is no getting out of our intertwined history” [“Getting In and Out,” Review, July]. In her essay, the words “mixed” and “intertwined” function as euphemisms, since the pertinent question regarding race in any society is not one of boundary but one of hierarchy. Racial democracy is not radical democracy. That’s why inequality has persisted even as America has become more mixed.

Strangely, Smith’s essay does not criticize white readers for their unwitting commitment to the violence that underwrites their past, present, and foreseeable future. While she notes that fictional white characters do very bad things on the big screen, the real white people in her account—her father and her husband; Jordan Peele’s mother and his wife; the artists Eric Fischl and Dana Schutz—are all beloved, or at least benign. However, the essay does aim, gratuitously, to disabuse black readers of a supposed racial essentialism. It offers lessons on the perils of black insiderism and assurances about the possibilities of white engagement.

Fortunately, Hannah Black is no arch-segregationist, much less a Nazi sympathizer. Nor are any of the nearly three dozen black artists and scholars who signed the open letter objecting to Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. They are versed in the relevant critical theory. A careful reader of Black’s letter will notice that she does not make an essentialist argument. In fact, the only person who, to my knowledge, has made recourse to the language of biological race (“biracial,” “quadroon,” “ace of spades,” “café au lait”) in this exchange is Smith herself, albeit sarcastically. Anti-essentialism has its limits, too; in the name of progress, it often fails to see its own essentialism at work.

Smith concludes, “Whether they like it or not, Americans are one people.” If this were the case— despite slavery and segregation, colonialism and imperialism, patriarchy and exploitation—then it’s not clear why nationality or any other marker of identity would matter, either. All people, by this logic, are one people, whether they like it or not. The claim sounds, at best, like “water is wet,” and, at worst, like “all lives matter.” Needless to say, this is not the right message for the moment.

Jared Sexton
Associate Professor of African- American Studies, University of California, Irvine Irvine, Calif.

Truth Bombs

I have no doubt that Bill O’Reilly distorts history in his book on the Second World War, but I found Matthew Stevenson’s account questionable as well [“Killing Bill O’Reilly,” Criticism, July]. Stevenson says he agrees with Murray Sayle, an Australian foreign correspondent, that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t end the war. That’s utter nonsense. Why should we take the opinion of a journalist as the gospel truth when the emperor of Japan himself said the bombs were determinative?

On August 15, 1945, just a week after Little Boy and Fat Man exploded over Japan, Emperor Hirohito announced his unconditional surrender with a four-minute radio address to the nation. Promising to protect the “security and well-being” of his subjects, he continued:

“The enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization. Such being the case, how are we to save the millions of our subjects, or to atone ourselves before the hallowed spirits of our imperial ancestors? This is the reason why we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers.”

The emperor could not have been any clearer about his reasons for surrendering. With all due respect to the author and Mr. Sayle, I’ll take the word of the man who actually signed the Potsdam Declaration.

Michael Carmona
Los Angeles

Off Message

As a disgruntled former member of the Democratic Party, who nevertheless often votes for its candidates, I read Andrew Cockburn’s article with interest [“It’s My Party,” Letter from Washington, July]. It’s incredible that the establishment types, who have so spectacularly failed to win elections for the past many years, remain confident that more of the same will yield a different result in the future.

Plucky insurgents within the party, such as Steve Phillips and Jane Kleeb, believe that a progressive message is the key to turning out new voters. It’s disheartening to see technocratic party leaders try to silence these voices, especially when there is so much at stake in stopping the Trump Administration.

One particularly bankrupt strategy that the Democratic leadership keeps reviving, despite the overwhelming evidence against it, is to attempt to “convert” white swing voters to their cause. In his book Brown Is the New White, Phillips demonstrates that many politicians are “blinded by the white”—that is, they value white voters over voters of color. I hope that the white people who voted for Trump will one day see the error of their ways. But in the meantime, it makes much more sense for the Democratic Party to embrace a progressive program and reach out to people of color who are not yet engaged in politics.

Joe Wainio
San Diego

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September 2017

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