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.


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.


  1. Elaine says

    I remember when Eric Holder called us a bunch of Cowards. It angers me to this day. This man does not care of how much of the taxpayers money he is spending on these terrorist to get them here for trial & hire them a lawyer, & them give them the rights that are only for Americans not terrorists that have tried to kill us. Not only all of that but the complete lack of compassion of the families of the victims that were killed during 9/11. He is a cold hearted man that should not have this much power & Obama should stand of for the American people & those families & not let him get away with this. Holder’s ideas of confronting the black mans civil rights movement would be honorable if he did it by the law but he uses the law & his powers to take advantage of things. Like the Black Panthers that were standing outside that voting building with a nite stick & in uniform trying to intimidate the white voters. They don’t show up for court & he dismisses the charges. Yes, as bad as I hate it racism does still exist but it has improved a lot since the 60’s. But when Obama & Holder & others like him that really exhibit racism in reverse at times just to make a point then that angers everyone else. Anyone who has a powerful position & abuses it angers me, especially if they are suppose to be the peoples representatives. We have all these years held them to a higher standard & they have repeatedly let us down. Take for instance Pelosi, Reid, Waxman, Boxer, Franks, Schumer, Waters, Dodd & so many more that I could scream. Just like Crypto said there are a lot of things that divide our country.

  2. crypto says

    Bargainers (not only among AAs, but as a style of interacting with people) are often able to accomplish things that Challengers are not. Being a Challenger may take courage, self-sacrifice, etc., etc….Being a Bargainer may require the same things, but these are more likely to go unnoticed. If Obama were a Challenger, he would unlikely have won the Presidency? Unfair? How many things are fair?
    (Yes, obviously, too, Challengers have accomplished things that Bargainers never would have.)

    Because of his decision not to be a Challenger, Obama is in a position (U.S. Presidency) to do more than many Challengers ever would be. But enough with the overly simplistic division of people into two categories.

    Strategically, yes, it make sense for Obama to distance himself from Carter’s comments. A blog post had a good discussion of how important this is, from a marketing perspective.

    Are there racist attacks against Obama? Definitely. Does focusing on them give them more legitimacy (not to be confused with seriousness) than they deserve? Yes. Does focusing on them distract from the other, huge debate which is ideological rather than racial in nature? Yes.

    Race will always be a factor. Gender will always be a factor. It is impossible to tease all of these factors out of any issue. But let’s not ignore the fact that there many issues other than race that divide this country.


  1. […] a lovesick puppy today at the UN, when he shook Obama’s hand – and didn’t want to let go. The Conversation America Won’t Have on Race – 09/24/2009 No matter what kind of shape-shifters or mask-wearers we are […]

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