As we approach the elections in November, all the meetings President Barack Obama has been conducting of late in the backyards of our nation’s homes remind me of a meeting the president had in his own backyard a year or so ago. I’m speaking of the Beer Summit of 2009.
In a bureaucratic climate where President Obama cannot publicly utter the word “race” without being accused of practicing some bad form of identity politics, he leveraged his formidable rhetorical skills to mediate a dialogue in private. The overtly public nature of the private discussion simply amplified what might be seen as a new yet elemental way for addressing race and fighting racism in America — that is, on a front that must become increasingly private and individual rather than public and collective.
The migration of racism from the public domain of national life to the private sphere of our personal lives can be attributed to the civil rights movement. While having made the practice of racism officially illegal in our public institutions, the movement had no jurisdiction over what remained in people’s hearts.
And like water’s search for an outlet, racism found an opening into which it could flow, pool and, settle. “Banished” from our public lives, racism was forced into a sort of hiding, and now takes refuge in the privacy of our churches, neighborhoods, homes and families where it enjoys greater cover.
Closely connected to this are the growing complexity and individualism of our respective communities of color. The civil rights movement afforded black people a degree of economic freedom that proved revolutionary for having precipitated the growth of a black middle class. Black people specifically — and people of color in general — gained access to levels of mobility previously unknown to them in terms of geography, income and self-conception.
By exerting pressure on the private sphere with a diversity of unprecedented scope and intimacy, this newfound mobility had the effect of spawning a form of mixture and encounter completely unfamiliar to people when it came to the sanctum of their lives.
Now add to this the demographic trends of the current millennium. By the year 2050, it is projected that people of color will constitute the nation’s majority. If it hasn’t already, the refrain, “Not in my backyard!” will become even more reminiscent of an outdated mindset.
Here is where something like the Beer Summit comes in. The way to combat a form of racism that has become highly private is to confront it in ways that are highly personal. This means confronting racism by carrying the struggle into the most intimate and protected of spaces including our churches and neighborhoods, homes and families, and yes, our backyards, too.
These are the places where authentic relationships — the kind in which we have a stake — are cultivated among people.
Ironically, in finding refuge within the intimate, racism has retreated to locations where it will most likely be defeated — at the dinner table or on the patio deck where the most genuine of encounters and “summits” occur.
It’s tough to tell sometimes whether talking about race exacerbates the problem or illuminates a solution. Publicly, the matter has become a third rail for politicians, and especially for our black leaders. But then again, gone are the days of marches and boycotts. The public sit-in has been traded for a more private version occurring at tables where we can all pull up a seat and break bread together, or, at least, crack open a fresh, smooth, cold one.
David H. Roane is an artist and educator.