1/23/08 L.A. Times 23
I am shocked by the commentary on the prominence of
race as a theme in the Democratic Party primaries. Shocked not
because race is a theme but because so many in the media seem to
think that race would not be or should not be mentioned. It is as if
we think that not speaking about race is the equivalent of making
progress on race issues.
The only thing more amusing than the use of a new term, "post-
racial ," to describe the positive response to Barack Obama's
campaign is the lamentation at the loss of "post-raciality."
This entire narrative is a media-concocted fiction. America is
decidedly not "post-racial." One need only observe the prosecution
of the Duke University lacrosse team or the Jena Six, the debate
about race-based affirmative action and the atrocity that was and is
Hurricane Katrina to know that racial issues are still with us. The
desire that the subject of race be set aside in the current
"post-racial" political conversation shows that society is unwilling
to openly face its worst fear: Not only could a black man ably lead
this nation, but the mere fact of a black president would force both
the majority and minority populations to reset our parameters for
Some (perhaps many) white Americans don't think it's normal for a
black person to be successful; their stereotypes can't accommodate
the fact of a black person having gone to Harvard and achieved some
prominence. As an African American writer, I am reminded of this
each time I finish a reading, when without fail a white person
overzealously praises my speaking ability. The most recent version
of this was a 15-year-old high school student who was amazed that I
had actually attended college.
Also telling is Obama's initial lack of support in the black
community, which may have been a result of an African American
unwillingness to see him as representative of traditional (very
different from stereotypical) black America. The majority of
Americans are comfortable accepting successful blacks in
stereotypically prescribed fields such as entertainment or sports,
where blacks are expected to be physically and emotionally strong
and yet largely politically mute. When a black person becomes
successful in another field, he or she becomes a "surprise" to the
majority and is subsequently stripped of color.
How many times have you heard a white person say that he or she
thinks of Obama not as a black man but as a man, or of Oprah not as
a black woman but as just, well, Oprah? I have lost count. This
well-meaning, praise-expectant affirmation of colorblindness may
seem like progress, but it's really indicative of having avoided the
central issue: Someone who looks different (read black) could be
just as qualified, just as deserving as a "normal" person (read
The in-your-face, un-stereotypical blackness of Obama therefore
forces all of us to question our ideas of race and racial progress
in a way that makes us work. This type of work is difficult and
scary, and it's understandable why some would rather delay the
discussion or label it unnecessary and unproductive. But having this
discussion will allow us to grow stronger as a country.
Obama's presence forces us to ask whether it is reasonable to call a
biracial man black; whether definitions of race designed to benefit
slave-owners are still necessary and valid in 2008. His openness
about past drug use could put front and center the debate about the
patently racist sentencing guidelines our "post-racial" society
employs to punish narcotics-related offenses.
In general, Barack Hussein Obama brings us face to face with the
discomfort our society feels with this idea of difference. Indeed,
fascination with Obama's name recalls studies that show how hard it
is for those with unique African American names to find employment.
And it is interesting that no one has mentioned an obvious reason
for the Obama campaign's initial reluctance to attack Hillary Rodham
Clinton -- that it might conjure up the age-old assumption that
aggressive young black men are a menace to older white women. (If
that statement offends you, I'm sure plenty of young black men like
myself can tell you about older white women crossing the street to
avoid us in our "post-racial" society.)
Even if we were to confront head-on these and other questions
surrounding race, we are unlikely to grow into the "post-racial"
modifier some of us so crave. That's because the idea of "post-raciality"
is a total fallacy. Should Obama become president, he will not
suddenly cease to be black, nor will white Americans be any less
white. However, Obama's continual presence in our newspapers, on
television and in our national consciousness would force us to
reconsider just what these colors mean. A President Obama (or any
other black president) would bring us face to face with the
threatening idea that colorblindness and equality are not the same,
and that real progress on racial issues means respect for, and not
avoidance of, difference.
Our racial past and future is something that we Americans must
address. Thanks to Obama, there is no better time than now