The Conversation America Won’t Have on Race

Zipped MouthIf 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 that 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 South Carolina Republican House Rep. Joe Wilson’s 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 a brow raiser.

witch-doctorBut when you see an onslaught of racist images of Obama 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, showing 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 policies.

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.

And 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?

And, 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 professes to think 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. He’s critics said the tone and tenor of the speech were 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 60s. 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” explained 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, Shelby Steele depicts the political style these men employ by showing 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 Steele, a bargainer strikes a bargain 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.

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.

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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 one.

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.

Rev. Irene Monroe

Republished with permission from The Black Commenator.

Published by the LA Progressive on September 24, 2009
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About Rev. Irene Monroe

Rev. Irene Monroe is a Ford Fellow and doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School. One of Monroe’s outreach ministries is the several religion columns she writes - “The Religion Thang,” for In Newsweekly, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender newspaper that circulates widely throughout New England, “Faith Matters” for The Advocate Magazine, a national gay & lesbian magazine, and “Queer Take,” for The Witness, a progressive Episcopalian journal. Her writings have also appeared in Boston Herald and in the Boston Globe. Her award-winning essay, “Louis Farrakhan’s Ministry of Misogyny and Homophobia”, was greeted with critical acclaim.

Monroe states that her “columns are an interdisciplinary approach drawing on critical race theory, African American , queer and religious studies. As an religion columnist I try to inform the public of the role religion plays in discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Because homophobia is both a hatred of the “other ” and it’s usually acted upon ‘in the name of religion,” by reporting religion in the news I aim to highlight how religious intolerance and fundamentalism not only shatters the goal of American democracy, but also aids in perpetuating other forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism and anti-Semitism.”