If we resided in a post-racial society, then the words William Faulkner wrote in the mid-20th century would not ring true today: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
With the election of Barack Obama as this nation’s first African American president, many of us had hoped we could finally close the door on America’s original sin — slavery. But the vestiges of that institution linger, not only in the backwaters of America, but also in the hallowed halls of Congress.
When U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., belted out “You lie!” during Obama’s televised address to a joint session of Congress, he jolted us back to Faulkner’s words. If Wilson’s act of incivility were merely about Joe the man, and not about a nation still haunted by and grappling with its shameful and unexamined legacy of racism, then the fodder and fuss that followed would not have ensued.
As a matter of fact, we could have viewed Wilson’s outburst as all about him, an impassioned man opposed to Obama’s political discussions. After all, I too find Obama’s health care plan and government spending to be eyebrow-raisers.
But when you see an onslaught of racist images of Obama created by those in opposition to him — placards that read “Afro-Communist,” “Obama ribs ‘n’ chicken … plus a nice slice of watermelon for the darkie,” and now the recent poster flooding the Internet that shows Obama wearing a feather headdress and a bone through his nose as a witch doctor — there is unquestionably something deeper going on than mere opposition to his policy.
And when you have a “birther” movement promulgating lies that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., Tea Party protests with guns at its rallies, and a vicious right-wing contingent blocking the president of the United States from delivering an innocuous back-to-school speech encouraging America’s children to stay in school, we are seeing efforts to delegitimize Obama’s authority.
Of course, the specter of race surfaces. You must ask: How much of a role does race play in the response to Obama’s policy decisions? Is it a key factor or a backdrop? Like any unresolved conflict, the warts and boils bubble up, seemingly out of nowhere.
“Racism … still exists, and I think it has bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people — not just in the South, but around the country — that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country,” former President Jimmy Carter told NBC News. “It’s an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply.”
Carter thinks race is the underlying issue. Obama thinks otherwise.
“Now there are some who are, setting aside the issue of race, actually I think are more passionate about the idea of whether government can do anything right,” he told ABC News. “And I think that that’s probably the biggest driver of some of the vitriol.”
But Attorney General Eric Holder might perceive Obama’s rejoinder as cowardice. In February, Holder received scathing criticism for his speech on race. His critics said the tone and tenor of the speech was confrontational and accusatory.
“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot,” Holder said, “in things racial, we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”
Obama is part of a new generation of African American male leaders. They would argue that they don’t flee from race issues, but rather that they don’t employ the black civil rights movement paradigm, often viewed as confrontational, to enter into mainstream politics. And they are heralded as post-racial leaders who navigate this country’s lingering legacy of racism with the intent of disarming whites of their guilt and fears.
In his article in the Feb. 4, 2008, issue of The New Yorker, titled “The Color of Politics: A Mayor of the Post-Racial Generation,” Peter Boyer wrote the following in explaining the generation of African American leaders that includes Obama, Democratic Leadership Council Chairman Harold Ford Jr., Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, and Gov. Deval Patrick:
“Their deeper kinship resides in their identities as breakthrough figures — African American politicians whose appeal transcends race. Men reared in the post-Selma era and schooled at elite institutions developed a political style of conciliation rather than confrontation, which complemented their natural gifts and, as it happens, nicely served their ambitions.”
Shelby Steele discusses the political style these men employ in his recent book, “A Bound Man.” Steele states that in the African American community, there are two types of people: the “bargainer” and the “challenger.”
“Bargainers” strike a deal with white America in which they say, “I will not rub America’s ugly history of racism in our face if you will not hold my race against me.” “Challengers,” on the other hand, charge white people with inherent racism and then demand they prove themselves innocent by supporting black-friendly polices like affirmative action and diversity.
No matter what kind of shape-shifters or mask-wearers we are as African American leaders, even our post-racial leaders are finding out that race is an unavoidable issue. And our attempts to dodge the issue of race in American public discourse are themselves racial acts.
The reason race continues to bubble up to the surface is because it remains the conversation America won’t have.