History and Race: The Gates Affair

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.