The Presidency aspirations of Barack Obama have caused a renewed discussion on race in America. The prospect of a black President has cast America in a different light throughout the world — as demonstrated by Obama’s highly successful trip to the Middle East and Europe last week.
But here, at home, America wrestles with the notion of the first black President in the history of the United States. In what should be, by all accounts, a runaway election season — with an unpopular sitting President, a Republican Party embroiled in controversy, a failing economy, and a war the America people are tired of — Barack Obama still finds himself running even with a tired old man who is a maverick in his own party.
How can John McCain run almost even with the most exciting political figure of the last two generations? It is clear. White people in America are confronted with a choice not even they imagined. So, now they have had to reacquaint themselves with that 400-year-old problem they once called “the American Negro” but now simply refer to as “Black America.”
Having relegated its historical dilemma of racial animus to the least priority of society, and rather than engage in any semblance of racial reconciliation but choose instead to simply dismiss race as an irrelevant and outdated construct, the emergence of Barack Obama has forced new generations of Americans to discuss their parents’ and forefathers’ racial history and face up to the current dilemmas of race, particularly with respect to the African American. Black is back in America — at least for now, while Barack is in the running and dominates global media.
There is much fanfare around the two-part, six-hour CNN special, “Black In America,” which ran all weekend (literally). America hasn’t looked at race in so long it has to even ask itself, “what is this thing called Black America?”
Often referred to in an antiquated paradigm, most of America still ties Black America to the Civil Rights movement and its leaders to that same movement –largely because many of them are still around. As the generation that won’t sit down, the Civil Rights generation still thinks it speaks for Black America (and the two generations that have come after them).
The question “Who speaks for Black America?” is as convoluted as the question “Who is Black America?” The fact is that America acts as if it doesn’t know us (because it doesn’t — Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” still plays out in many facets of this society) and has to study Black America every 20 years, like we’re some new phenomenon or something. It stands to reason that the same issues — socio-political inequality, economic subjugation, systematic and institutional discriminations — that went unresolved after slavery, and went unresolved after Reconstruction, and went unresolved after Jim Crow, and went unresolved after the Civil Rights movement, and went unresolved during the Reagan “White Backlash” Revolution, and went unresolved in the Colorblind movement, are still unresolved.
The problem of Black America is rooted in America’s historical race conflict and its refusal to correct it. America thinks it owes Black America nothing and that Black America’s dilemmas are self-contrived and self-inflicted. Much of the discussion revisited in “Black In America” is not new. Most of the statistics are “turn of the millennium” studies manifested out of two events; the 50th Anniversary of the Brown Decision, and the 40th Anniversary of the Kerner Commission Study (Two Americas).
There have always been successful blacks, black families, black poverty, and black conflict. There has also always been white supremacy, white privilege, white denial, and white separation from the “black dilemma (the so-called “Negro Problem”). The issues that once faced Black America still face Black America, namely the absence of work and the forms of abusive social control, namely police interaction. As long as you’re not trying to find serious work or don’t have an interaction with law enforcement, it’s great being black in America. You can live within the constraints of this society’s limitations. It’s like freedom with an asterisk — just a few small caveats (inconveniences). But being President of the United States wasn’t one of them, so America has to get to know us again.
What has changed is America’s bifocal racial dynamic (black/white). It is now a multifocal dynamic (white/black/Asian/Latino) with a social pecking order that has literally buried the equality prospects of Black America. The population growth of the nation’s largest minority, Latinos, has caused white America to shift its attention to this new “minority,” while Asians have proved economically self-sustaining as they dominate minority access to America’s higher education and technology industries.
America’s new minorities know what it is like to be “black” in America because Black America is the case study for race relations in the United States. “Black” in America is something few aspire to be, even as “black” culture is the dominant influencer of American culture. Unless you’re emulating black culture and black dialect, black is a jacket nobody wants to wear.
As Paul Mooney once said, “Everybody wants to be black, but nobody wants to be Black.” Comedian Chris Rock said it better: “No white man would change places with any black person in America because for white people the sky is the ceiling, but for black people, the ceiling is the sky (meaning anything over their head is a barrier to success).
So what’s the renewed interest in Black America? It’s simple: the prospect of a black President. If America is going to elect one, I guess they have to get to know black people — beyond the negative images and stereotypes they helped perpetuate (like they don’t already know). Black is back in America. What that really means, we really don’t know. We “just Americans” are curious today as to what it’s like to be “black” in America. Again.
by Anthony Asadullah Samad
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