The first racial controversy of Barack Obama’s presidency has predictably exposed the fault lines in American politics and made the president’s implied promise of a “post-racial” administration ring hollow.
The knee-jerk reaction of both sides to the incident has revealed the enormous difficulty in making any real, substantive progress in arriving at a true “post-racial” America.
This is especially true when what divides us is talked about using a uniquely American code that precludes us from honestly confronting our differences.
We don’t talk about “race relations” in America. The subject is too painful, too charged with memories of past sins and filled with portent for our present standoffs to deal with directly. This is true of both sides. Talking about race — really getting down to the nitty gritty and exposing our fears, our hopes, our biases, our misconceptions, and, ultimately, our human failings in being prejudiced simply because someone doesn’t look like us — cannot be done in a political context.
Hence, we go around the problem, sidling up to it, stopping short of dealing honestly with it by bringing up ancillary issues that keep us from looking directly into the mirror but allow for a little steam to be released from the pressure cooker.
An example was the Democratic convention of 1964. The real issue was second class citizenship in the south for African Americans. Rather than directly confront the evil, the battle lines were drawn between the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party representing both blacks and whites, and the regular Democrats who were represented by an all-white slate of delegates. Which delegation should represent the state in Atlantic City at the convention?
The subtext of the entire fight — played out in the televised credential committee hearings — was the indignity and basic unfairness being accorded blacks in Mississippi. The searing speech before the committee by Fannie Lou Hamer, a 45-year-old sharecropper who shamed the convention with her fiery rhetoric, brought the issue of race to a boil by appealing to basic American values:
And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings — in America?
Despite Hamer’s charged words, the MFDP challenged the credentials of the segregationists on the political basis that the whites had no intention of supporting Lyndon Johnson in the general election and that by excluding blacks from the selection process they violated party rules and the law.
Everyone in America knew that the argument was really about race. But Johnson, who dispatched Hubert Humphrey to come up with a compromise that was eventually endorsed by Martin Luther King, Jr. but rejected by the MFDP, was fearful that if the matter became too overt, other all-white delegations in the south would bolt the convention a la the Dixiecrats of 1948.
LBJ prevented the question of credentials from reaching the floor of the convention (where the MFDP almost certainly would have won) by strong-arm tactics, but he altered the Democratic Party forever by requiring future delegations to be integrated.
In true American fashion, the real issue of race in America was subsumed in the name of party unity.
In similar fashion, we have tiptoed around the real issues of race to this day. Look at how our national conversation on race proceeded when Barack Obama became a serious candidate for president. One would think a black candidate for the highest office in the land would open the floodgates on both sides and allow for a serious discussion of the history, the fundamental human flaws, and the emotional world that both blacks and whites share. Both races journey through time, side by side — but separately. Equal before the law — but not. Eying each other warily across the great chasm that has been created in politics, culture, and simple human contact, we make up excuses to remain apart.
Barack Obama tried to finesse the issue of race when a “distraction” rose up to bite his candidacy early on. The question of candidate Obama’s relationship with the preacher Jeremiah Wright was leapt upon by the candidate’s foes as they tried to portray him as “the angry black man” — a feared stereotype among whites and one almost certain to derail his candidacy unless he defused the controversy quickly.
He put the issue to rest the way we always do in America — by sidling up to the truth but avoiding the profoundly painful questions that keep us apart:
And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions — the good and the bad — of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
Avoiding specifics and putting the controversy in a personal context may have been smart politics, but it did not address the issues at stake. Why does Wright feel the way he does? Why are white Americans fearful or angry at the preacher (beyond his paranoia and wretched view of history)? To answer “racism” is the code we always use when confronted with the stark outlines of the racial divide. But Obama couldn’t ask or respond to these questions because to do so would have required almost a new vocabulary that no one has invented yet — a vocabulary of reconciliation without rancor or recrimination.
I believe Obama sincerely tried to bridge the gap between reality and rhetoric but failed in the end because to do so would have divided us. Presidential campaigns are about uniting people — uniting by fear, by promise of economic or some other gain, by dint of personal perceptions of the candidate. They are not about dividing people. Obama got high marks for that speech for even mentioning slavery in the context that it is a burden we carry as Americans — to make the words in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution resonate with truth rather than echo with hypocrisy:
Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution — a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.
And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part — through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk — to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.
This is the nub of the matter and is what keeps the races from engaging in a real conversation about what separates us. Whites are unable to reconcile their belief in the Constitution as the perfect expression of the American mind with its obvious faults in incorporating chattel slavery into its body. Failing to acknowledge the hypocrisy inherent in American history (and down to this day) keeps the white race slaves to what we used to call a “false consciousness.”
Blacks are unable to view white America through any other medium except the chains of their ancestors, which colors their perceptions of “progress” in politics and culture toward equality and gives them a ready-made excuse for failure. It also allows them to manipulate the system through the very effective means of piling guilt upon those whites predisposed to show their solidarity with African Americans, as well as burdening the rest of us with the inability to honestly confront the racial divide because the code will not allow us to pile on the victims of our historic oppression.
These are conversations that have taken place separately within the races but rarely between them. Obama has circled around some of these issues but has never directly addressed them as witnessed by his “stupid police” comment concerning the arrest of Henry Louis Gates.
The facts of the case are a fascinating example of how race divides America. Police, as authority figures, have a notorious history in African American communities — sometimes deserved, sometimes not. It appears from unimpeachable eyewitness accounts that in this case, despite Sgt. Crowley being an expert in how to avoid racial profiling and diversity training, the perception on the part of Professor Gates was that he was being singled out for being black.
Of course, Gates had no idea that Officer Crowley had such a stellar reputation or possessed such tolerant credentials. All he knew was his experience as a black man in America and his assumption that if he had been white, the police would not have asked for his ID.
We’ll never know if that assumption was correct. Just as we’ll never know if the anonymous woman who called the police after seeing Gates try to break into his own home would have done so if she had glimpsed a white man trying to do the same thing. We can assume the best or the worst from all involved and, within the context of our flawed understanding of each other, assure ourselves that we are correct.
The point being, all the actors in this little drama have their perception of the incident colored by what divides us. The actions of everyone were programmed by the rules under which we currently interact as white and black Americans. Gates felt his dignity attacked — an anathema to whites who can’t understand how he could fail to appreciate the police looking after his property. For his part, one might wonder how much more patient Crowley could have or should have been with Gates before arresting him. No doubt he acted professionally. But even with someone as evenhanded as Crowley apparently is, the nagging suspicion that if Gates had been white he would have somehow been treated differently is hard for many to shake. That is the trap that history has set for us and is one from which we refuse to release ourselves.
For the president to inject himself into this debate without facts, without direct knowledge of what occurred, was politically stupid but culturally understandable. He also must play by the rules of engagement by which we all live. Is it really so surprising that his first reaction would have been to defend Gates and condemn the police? Perhaps we should demand better of our president. But if the rest of us are not going to demand better of ourselves, why should Obama be any different?
I think Obama really believed he could be a “post-racial” president. It’s also obvious from this controversy that it is a lot more difficult than he imagined. Shedding 300 years of history takes more than the affirmation at the polls President Obama received last November. It will take, above all else, the recognition by both black and white that the past — both the oppression and the guilt and rage our history engenders — must be a prologue to a future that rises above what divides us by connecting to what unites us.