Rev Irene Monroe

The Conversation America Won't Have on Race

Filed By Rev Irene Monroe | September 24, 2009 4:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: African-American, America, Barack Obama, black, Jimmy Carter, joe wilson, race, race relations, racism, shelby steele, slavery, white

If we resided in a post-racial society then William Faulkner's words uttered in the 20th century would not ring true in this century - "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past."

With the election of Barack Obama as this nation's first African-American president many of us had hope we could finally close the door on America''s original sin - slavery.

But the vestiges of that institution lingers not only in the backwaters of America, but they also linger in the hallowed halls of Congress.

When South Carolina Republican House Rep. Joe Wilson belted out ""You lie!"" during Obama''s televised joint session of Congress address, Wilson 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 Joe's outburst as all about him, an impassioned man in opposition to Obama's current political discussions. After all, I too find Obama's healthcare plan and government spending to be a brow raiser.

But when you see an onslaught of racist images of Obama by those in opposition to him, like 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, showing Obama wearing a feather headdress and a bone through his nose as a witch doctor, there is unquestionably something deeper going on than merely opposing 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 strong efforts at play to delegitimize Obama's authority.

Of course the specter of race surfaces. You must ask: how much does race play a key factor and not a backdrop to Obama's policy decisions?

Like any unresolved conflict, the warts and boils bubble up, unseeingly, 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. It's an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply," former President Jimmy Carter told NBC News.

Whereas Carter thinks race is indeed 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 Obama's 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 who come after the 60's. They would argue that they don't flee from race issues, but rather they don't employ the black civil rights movement paradigm, often viewed as confrontational, to enter into mainstream politics. And they are heralded as American's post-racial leaders who successfully navigate through this country's lingering legacy of racism with the intent purpose of disarming whites of their guilt and fears.

Peter Boyer''s article in the February 4, 2008, issue of The New Yorker titled "The Color of Politics: A Mayor of the Post-Racial Generation" (sub. only) wrote the following explaining this "post-racial" generation of African Americans that includes Barack Obama, Harold Ford, Cory Booker, and my governor, Deval Patrick:

Their deeper kinship resides in their identities as breakthrough figures -- Africa 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.

This political style these men employ Shelby Steele depicts it best 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." What is a "bargainer" or a "challenger?" According to Shelby Steele, a bargainer strikes a bargain with white America in which they say I will not rub America's ugly history of racism in your face if you will not hold my race against me. A "challenger," on the other hand, does the opposite of a "bargainer." A "challenger" charges white people with inherent racism and then demands 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 Americans leaders, even our post-racial leaders are finding out that the nagging issue of race is an unavoidable issue. And our attempts to dodge the issue of race in American public discourse is itself a racial act. And the reason race bubbles up to the surface, unseeingly out of nowhere, is because it is the conversation America won't have.

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Great article. I would like to hear your thoughts on biracial political leaders next.

I can't agree on slavery being the original sin of America since I have to consider the things done to the First Nations Peoples here and then the large number of people loaded on ships in Europe and sent to work as indentured servants on English owned farms. I see all of these as characteristic of an Anglo mind set which has brought a near total genocide, ethnic class system and racism.
I'm not so certain about calling these leaders post-racial. I too live in Mass and I have found our Governor and our President to both be matter-o-fact where the issue of race comes in.
I wholeheartedly agree that the refusal to engage the subject of racism in public discourse is very much racism in action. The very silence of the situation perpetuates the status quo.
I think that to some extent racism is being forced to to show a face in the light and this allows more of us to see it. If you want to lance a boil you've got to get at it in the light.
So how do we bring this discussion to a larger audience?

I think it's important to remember that when the US was still broken up into Spanish and English territories, having Native American slaves was acceptable too. Natives were slaves before the Africans started being shipped over en masse.

As for Irene's article, I think she - and Jimmy Carter - are dead on center. It is a racial issue - at least in part.

I agree completely that it is a racial issue at this juncture and with the overall tenor of her essay. I disagreed with slavery being the original sin when genocide figures in so strongly for some.

Rev. Monroe, you cite Shelby Steele's notions of "bargainers" and "challengers". Two points deserve to be made here:

(1) The "challenger" may have been needed in times past when whites uniformly denied or defended their racism. Under those conditions, no "bargaining" is effectively possible. While some situations continue to be agregious and deserve to be challenged (for example, the way African-Americans are handled by the judicial and prison systems), the tactic of "challenging" has two problems: (a) it is not a trust-building tactic, instead potentially encouraging white fear, guilt and suspicion, and (b) it is vulnerable to overuse, which can lead to a "victim" mentality that is not empowering to new generations of blacks.

(2) The "bargaining" stance that Shelby describes is not a stance at all, but a proper social contract: In the absence of a clear need for the contrary, your race is not an issue, and my race is not an issue. This is more than the word "bargaining" implies; instead, it is a tentative attempt to work together under the assumption of racial equality, which is exactly where we are trying to get to. Moreover, this approach is trust-building rather than suspicion-inducing.

About 10 days ago, I described four groups in America (see comments) that make effective dialogue about race difficult or impossible. Had my thinking been farther along, I might have given each group a handy label the way Alex Blaze did for his groupings re gay marriage.

I have no doubt that much of the racism we are seeing channeled at Obama and his agenda is genuine. But now that we have a black president, there is the possibility that some, who are not themselves particularly racist, might attempt to stir up racism to achieve political ends. To what extent is the goal to berate the president with racial insults, and to what extent is the goal to make a Democratic president appear ineffective and incompetent by any means available, so that a Republican president will be elected next time around? Is the cartoon of Obama dressed like an African witch-doctor intended to insult the president's Kenyan genes, or is the intent to ridicule and undermine health care reform by all means necessary?

We may have seen this mechanism in the case of black politicians who became governors or Congressmembers. But America having a black president is a new experience for all of us. Do we now have a new political reason for kicking up the same ol' racism? If we do, this is yet another blight on the long-needed American Dialogue on Race.

I completely get why Obama doesn't publically agree with Jimmy Carter. As a President whose authority is challenged by a racist society, he can't - not for one minute - play the "victim." To do so would undermine his authority moreso than a thousand Joe Wilsons. This isn't cowardice as much as an acknowledgement of political realities.

But, as Rev. Monroe states: Jimmy Carter hit the nail on the head. Whether or not the original "original sin" was slavery or our treatment of Native Americans, what is undisputed is that the stain on our national conscience is surely a) declaring that all persons were created equal, and b) treated people of different races, genders, sexual orientation, abilities, and religions not only differently, but often cruelly.

This is an excellent essay; I can't wait to share it with my tweeters.

I don't think Obama is really free, no matter the truth of the matter, to say that the protesters are at least partly there because of racism. I personally think that's true, but can you imagine the shitstorm if Obama said that these people are racist? The thin-skinned, idiotic establishment media wouldn't be able to talk about anything else, and he'd be able to kiss the rest of his agenda goodbye.

That reaction would also be because of racism, more specifically white people who don't like to look within themselves and see the scary thoughts they'd find.

So maybe it would do some good to shake up the whole situation.

Alex, along what lines would you move to shake things up? This isn't a challenge but a serious inquiry.
My personal opinion is that I am proud that the President acts with such dignity and I am even more pleased that I voted for him. I agree that it would be problematic for him to go after racism directly right now by responding to it.
As for president Carter speaking as he did. I am proud of him also because he is an elderly southern white straight land-owning male who has surfed the waves of the most powerful office and he is directly addressing an issue which needs to be addressed from that quarter. You can't say that he is pissed off because of the myriad dismissive statements which people use to discredit others.
I feel that it is incumbent upon white males to address these issues moreso than any other demographic in our country. President Carter is meeting that duty head on and in so doing he is challenging his cultural 'peerage'. (connotations intentional)

Race remains a huge issue in American politics, as does class and ethnicity. I wrote a piece about this over on PHB, focusing on the feminist movement. It is the elephant in the living room, the Lord Voldemort "that which cannot be named" spectre that haunts so much of even the liberal establishment and the goals of liberal politics.