Asking a Rude Question of Courtland Milloy
A recent piece on The Root mentions my question to profile subject and Washington Post Metro columnist Courtland Milloy for a story in last week's dead tree version of the Washington City Paper: Whether the well-known, and lately Obama-taunting, writer likes white people. Root editor Natalie Hopkinson figures out one reason I asked: "Even though Smith is black, I don't doubt that he was accurately channeling some urgent wonder among the Twitterati," she writes.
That's definitely true, but it also goes a bit deeper. As I point out in the piece, Milloy has often done a fantastic job relaying the kind of D.C. barbershop discourse on gentrification many non-black residents might otherwise miss out on. The assumption that he's just not fond of whites can end up being the elephant in the room, though, and an easy way out for those who prefer to treat his admittedly rabble-rousing analysis as nothing more than a collection of bigoted rants. In light of that, neglecting to ask Milloy how he felt about white people—as uncomfortable a moment as it might have created—would have been a disservice to both the "Twitterati" and Milloy.
It wasn't exactly the first time he'd heard such an inquiry, anyway. The impression I got hanging out with Milloy was that he gets prodded about his racial outlook fairly frequently. It's also interesting to note that the question bore fruit. Milloy didn't just reply with a simple, "Of course I do," but with a long, expository answer that provided insight into both his amiable, humanistic side, and his angry, fed up side.
Glancing at the comments on a blog post in which The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates responds to the Milloy profile, people seem to be ready to have a substantive debate about Milloy unencumbered by the charge that he's a racist, but cognizant of the fact that he's angry.
I'd ask the question all over again, given the choice to go back. As I said in the article, my theory is that as racism grows weaker as an institution, it'll grow stronger as a psychological tick. I'm somewhat of a traditionalist when it comes to addressing that disorder, relying heavily on the psychoanalytic remedy of bringing things that simmer in the unconscious mind into consciousness. Or rather, in this case, turning the thoughts that remain unsaid within our typical public conversation on race into a meandering cover story.
In any event, Hopkinson does a good job boring into some of the issues the profile brings up, and you should check out her observations.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery