The Other Columbus: The Flintstones Vitamins of race discussion

Scott Woods

COVID-19 cut into my NPR time. I usually listened to it on the way to work on those mornings I did not require rap or blues to steel me for the day. But since I hadn’t been into work in a few months, there was no commute. And all of the places I like to visit are either closed or potentially unsafe, so I spend far less time in the car, in general. 

Being recalled to work recently should have led me back to the radio station, but it hasn’t happened in the last two weeks because I do not listen to NPR during times of racial crisis. When a local story involving race hits the organization’s news desk, it’s usually just a headline. But when the crisis goes national, the stories graduate to discourse, and that’s when I have to tap out for everyone’s sake.

The problem isn’t that the stories are wrong. Their guests are usually well considered and the information conveyed is largely uncontestable. The issue for me (and I admit the issue is personal) is that it’s all so didactic. The average NPR story about race sounds like they’re talking to 8-year-olds about race. The tones are hushed, the language elementary. Worse, it is like that every time. Every NPR discussion about race sounds like the first discussion. All of this is fine when the subject is how to bake a gluten-free quiche, but racism isn’t an unknown quantity. Ultimately, these stories are fragile affairs, delivered in a way as to not push the heart, and NPR’s prime demographic, too hard. It is the Flintstones Vitamins of race discourse.

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Business aside, NPR gives the impression that they are trying to do the right thing. They certainly cover race more than any other white-owned media outlet, but it’s a bar so low it’s buried. They invite the right guests, then intellectually handcuff their arms behind their backs with reductive lines of questioning because NPR audiences – largely white, largely not young, largely liberal-enough – prefer whatever race conversations they’re going to be subjected to delivered on spoons. And this is supposed to be the outlet for smart folks, the people who get it, the well-meaning.

I sometimes catch a random comment on an article I’ve written from the “We’re here now” crowd, someone who thinks I should more readily acknowledge the white effort to-date, that I should high-five the progress that is their mere presence. The subtext being, “Geez, can’t you be glad it’s happening at all?” The answer is no, not me. 

There are millions of people for whom the bare minimum is good enough. They are probably not people who go through life as potential object lessons every day. My keeping a knee on the neck of such so-called progress is a small price to pay when the worst thing that will happen is that someone’s feelings will get hurt. I long for such distance, such social impenetrability, such shoulder-shrugging freedom.