How to Tell Sh*t from Shinola

BELL VIEW--Last night, my wife drew my attention to a discussion thread on a Facebook group for LA moms. One of the moms, while carpooling several kids to school, made a comment, which one of the kids pronounced “racist.” The comment appeared relatively innocuous, so the mom posted it on Facebook for a reaction. More than 500 comments later, the debate had devolved into a discussion about whether or not white people should just shut the hell up. 

I understand the impulse to shut down white people trying to explain racism. If someone had raised a question on Facebook about whether a comment was sexist, for example, I’m pretty sure I’d sit that one out and just listen. But was the question wrong? Is it racist to wonder out loud whether something you’ve done or said crosses some line you weren’t even sure existed? 

As with all such questions, the answer, I think, comes down firmly on the side of “maybe.” 

None of the moms on the Facebook thread took issue with the question itself. Everyone seemed to recognize that the question came from a sincere desire to understand an event that, to this hard-working mom in Los Angeles, came as something of a shock. But the speed with which the discussion veered into rage and mud-slinging demonstrates how fraught these times are. I have a self-interest in promoting an environment where sensitive topics can be discussed openly. In other words, I’m not trying to tell anybody they need to listen to me. I’m just trying to carve out a place where I and my family can remain relevant. 

I’m often told by those who live outside the LA bubble, that I don’t get out enough. From the other end of the spectrum, I’m told I need to clean up my list of friends because many of them are simply not worth talking to. The reason why so much of what I write and think about comes from my interactions on social media is because it’s virtually the only place where my preconceived ideas are challenged. I’m not one to shy away from a good ole fashioned internet battle – and I can sling mud with the best of them. 

Still, I think it’s important to talk. And to that end, I’ve been trying to tone down my comments, refrain from the desire to insult people who – in my opinion – need to be insulted every now and then. Where I think some of the above-described moms went wrong is in failing to recognize the genuine good faith of practically everyone on the thread. 

Peter Beinart writes in December’s Atlantic that “Republican Is Not a Synonym for Racist.” Beinart argues “conservatives need liberals to stop abusing their cultural power,” by, for instance, not calling people bigots just because they don’t get to the right answer as quickly as you. As an example of liberals moving too fast for conservatives, Beinart refers to Brendan Eich, who was “forced out” of the CEO job at Mozilla for donating to California’s Prop 8. Most of you remember Prop 8 as the 2008 ballot initiative outlawing gay marriage in California, put forward in response to, among other things, Gavin Newsome’s 2004 decision to license same-sex marriages in San Francisco. 

Prior to gay marriage becoming a “thing,” I hadn’t really given it much thought. It’s not that I had no gay friends – I had plenty. But even they didn’t seem to be talking about the issue much. When someone suggested that gay people ought to be allowed to marry each other, my thought process went something like this: “Oh … you want to get married? Let me think about that … um … ok.” 

Now, maybe we couldn’t expect that kind of speedy decision-making about other peoples’ lives with respect to decisions that have, literally, no impact on our own, but, if by 2008, you contributed money to a campaign to outlaw the marriages of other people you didn’t know – you were a bigot. That doesn’t exactly qualify as throwing the term around loosely. That’s just a fact. 

We are, literally (and I mean that literally), still discussing the relative merits of the Confederacy in this country. Liberals don’t need to stop calling bigotry and racism bigotry and racism. But we do need to be able to see the difference between a frazzled mom trying to do the right thing, and a white supremacist takeover of the federal government. Republicanism became a synonym for racism for me the day I saw the Willie Horton ad.  Ok, conservatives. Maybe you don’t move as quickly as I do. But the time has come to get the lead out.


(David Bell is a writer, attorney, former president of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council and writes for CityWatch.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.