Pop Culture Round-Up: Dr. Phil, Tavis Smiley and Clarence Thomas

There’s been lots happening on the popular culture and racism front that I thought I’d round up here in one long post.

Dr. Phil, in two back-to-back shows, dealt with the issues in Jena. It was a difficult couple of shows to watch on any number of levels. In many ways, watching white-people-behaving badly and the deep disconnect between blacks and whites on this show was just painful. While he got some things right, Dr. Phil ultimately fails in my view by reframing the social issue of racism and the structure of white supremacy as a psychological issue that boils down to the question he posed in the show, “Where is the parenting here, on both sides?” The boards at DrPhil.com are quite lively with discussion about the shows, and if you have the patience, I encourage you to check them out here. Someone should write a book about the current batch of talk shows and the way they deal with race, similar to Josh Gamson’s wonderful Freaks Talk Back, from 1998.

And, in case you missed it, on Sunday night, CBS’ show “60 Minutes” featured an interview with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas about his new book, My Grandfather’s Son. The piece was less a hard-hitting piece of journalism as it was a redemptive puff piece for Thomas. Fortunately, the New York Times chose to run an op-ed from Anita Hill countering some of the decades-old charges Thomas made on CBS. By far the most satisfying critical dialogue about the CBS-Thomas interview was on Tavis Smiley’s show Monday, which featured a panel discussion with Cornel West, Farah Griffin, and Marc Morial. One of the things I appreciated about this panel was that they all recognized the humanity of Clarence Thomas, West kept repeating, “we don’t want to vilify the brother,” while at the same time taking CBS to task for failing to recognize the large, resounding, and sustained criticism of Thomas’ policies as the former head of the EEOC and as a Supreme Court Justice. West noted that Thomas on the bench has consistently ruled against not just Black people, but poor people and working people. Griffin reminded us all that the objection to Thomas was so strong that a figure no less than Toni Morrison put together an edited volume critical of his positions. Perhaps my favorite line from this well-informed exchange came from Morial; when Smiley asked him what he thought of the interview, he replied, “Well, I liked his grandfather a lot.”

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