The candidacy of Barak Obama has inspired a great deal of talk, some of it self-inflicted by Sen. Obama, about the idea of transcending race. However, as the campaign as worn on, it has become apparent that “transcend race” is one of those phrases which means different things to different people. It seems to be a Rorschach test of wishful thinking in which people see it as meaning what they want it to mean.
I want to address how this issue plays out on the conservative side. The conservative perspective is the one which is closer to what I identify with and I think we have suffered as a nation because of conservatives’ refusal to look at and think reasonably about issues of race.
In regards to transcending race, on the conservative side, I have heard a fair amount of talk which indicates a wish for “transcending race” to mean eliminating race as an issue to which we need to pay attention to or offer consideration for. Because of this, conservatives have often reacted to things like the fact that Obama attends an Afrocentric church as a betrayal of his claim to be someone who can help us move past race. However, this perspective is based on a host of completely erroneous ideas.
The first problem with this perspective is that it presumes that in order to “get past race”, we must embrace a sort of “color-blind” nirvana and assiduously pretend that we have already reached such a place. In large part, this seems to mean that we ought to reject anything which conflicts with the idea that we are and should be completely unaware of race. Conservatives love to repeat Dr. King’s words that a man should be judged on the content of their character and not on the color of their skin. However, not judging someone based on skin color does not exonerate us from having to deal with the effects that centuries of judging people based on skin color has had on people. Not judging people based on race, doesn’t mean insisting that race is not a consideration in any aspect of our lives.
The problem with trying to simply ignore race is that we live in a country which has been shaped by race. The way my black husband was raised by his black mother is directly related to her experiences of growing up in segregated America. When my husband was young, he and his friends planned their evening based on race. They choose where do go based on where their skin color would not cause problems for them. Then they would deliberately prepare themselves to deal with being pulled over by the police – they would only carry a certain amount of money. They made sure to have their IDs even if they were not going to be driving and would put their wallets in places where they could be reached without causing a cop to think they might be reaching for a gun. My husband has lost jobs due to race. After some bad experiences, he stopped accompanying us when looking for a place to rent for our family. If we insist that transcending race requires us to view race as irrelevant, then we are refusing to see a fundamental part of people’s identities, formative experiences and concept of themselves. Rather than being a sign of respect, this is profoundly disrespectful. It doesn’t mean that we need to view people as bound by their race or homogeneous in their experiences or the way they have dealt with those experiences. However, by insisting that race must be irrelevant, we are basically saying, “we’re happy to let you into the club as long as you leave that chunk of yourself that makes us uncomfortable at the door.” And guess what? Most African Americans wouldn’t want to leave all that stuff at the door even if they could. Not only is it profoundly disrespectful to them, but there are aspects of black culture and identity which are positive that people have no desire to leave behind just to make white folks more comfortable.
The second idea which seems to underlie the conservative understanding of how we “transcend race” is an assumption that the past is past and there’s nothing we can do about it, so it’s best just to let it all go. There are several problems with this line of thought. The first is that the past isn’t nearly as past as people like to think. There are large numbers of people alive today who grew up under and lived under segregation and the terrorism employed by the majority race to enforce this unequal system. Even more people were raised by the folks whose entire formative experience of life was shaped by this system of inequality. It is ridiculous to expect that people would not continue to be influenced by this not-so recent past.
The other problem with trying to write off the past as relevant to today is that although legal segregation ended back in the 60s, the inequalities which that segregation had forced on people didn’t end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. A black man who had been forced to live in a less desirable neighborhood didn’t suddenly find that his house was worth as much, and as easy to sell as a white man who used his GI Bill benefits to buy a home in the suburbs. He was still denied that wealth even though segregation had ended. 30 year old African American men and women who were illiterate due to our refusal to provide a proper education to African Americans didn’t magically learn to read because segregation ended. Educated African Americans who had been forced into lower paying, less desirable and less prestigious jobs due to discrimination didn’t suddenly get brownie points on their resumes to allow them to compete with their white peers for equal pay because segregation ended. Even if every last shred of discrimination and unequal treatment and opportunity had disappeared with the end of legal racial segregation, the fact of the matter is that we didn’t magically reset the clock with the passage of the Civil Rights and put African Americans on equal footing with whites from that day forward.
The past hasn’t magically disappeared and the longer we refuse to deal with this simple fact, the longer it will take us to actually be able to move past race. The passage of time certainly helps, and things do and have gotten much better, but we are very much crippled by the fact that we have refused to look realistically at the effect of our past on the presents and applying conservative principles to making the problem better.
How we deal with our history of racial oppression is yet another example of how by refusing to deal with race, conservatives have handed the issue over to liberals who inevitably came up with the worst “solutions” imaginable. A prime example of this is the idea of “white guilt”. When a person of color shares a story or a grievance, conservatives habitually presume that the goal of doing so is to induce “white guilt” and prod people to supporting some cockamamie liberal idea. Stories of discrimination, past atrocities, studies which reveal continuing discrimination or grievances are often met with a denial of responsibility: we’ll I didn’t do that, I’m not responsible, there’s probably a reason for it that has nothing to do with race, I wasn’t even alive then, etc. However, if we could get out of the habit of assuming that issues of race are simply part an parcel of the liberal mindset, we could see that these stories and grievances are really a call to compassion. We don’t have to take responsibility for a wrong done to have compassion on the person who is suffering from it.
Dealing with the past and present reality of racial problems in America doesn’t require us to deal in collective guilt/responsibility. However, understanding the relevance of the past and its continuing influence on the present ought to rouse our sense of human compassion. The thing with compassion is that it compels us to action, otherwise it is simply pity. However, since we’ve refused to apply conservative thinking to issues of race, we automatically assume that action would require embracing liberal programs and ideas which are anathema to most conservatives.
From time to time, there is talk in conservative circles about making common cause with black conservatives as typified by people like Bill Cosby and Ward Connerly. However, the reality is that more than 90% of African Americans vote Democratic and this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. The reason is that while Bill Cosby and Ward Connerly do represent legitimate voices coming out of the black community, conservatives consistently pull out the parts they want to hear and ignore the parts which give the message resonance in the black community. Bill Cosby doesn’t just say that parents need to parent and teach their kids to speak and dress properly because it’s the right thing to do. He says that parents need to do these things because race is still an obstacle. If kids are not prepared to function in the world, they will never be able to overcome those obstacles and due to their disadvantaged position, they will pay a higher price for this failure. Conservatives only want to hear the parts chastising poor black parents, while refusing to acknowledge the equally important message of continuing obstacles and challenges which African Americans face. Likewise, while Ward Connerly is a darling of the conservative set for his work against affirmative action, if you actually listen to Mr. Connerly it becomes clear that his message is about much more than just getting rid of affirmative action. Mr. Connerly frequently speaks of affirmative action as an ineffective band aid which takes attention away from the real issues and solutions for race in America. Rather than working to get rid of affirmative action out of some notion of race as being an illegitimate consideration in American life, he is working to get rid of affirmative action because he knows full well that race is an ongoing issue in America and believes that affirmative action is making it worse.
There is a disconnect between African Americans who, while holding broadly conservative values, live with and are well aware of the unresolved problems of race in America and white conservatives who think that we can make our racial problems go away by simply “moving on”. This is why even a grizzled old man who spends afternoons in the barber shop playing spades with his pals which complaining about young people’s scurrilous ways will walk into the voting booth and punch a straight Democratic ticket. The liberals have the wrong answer to practically every thing, including race, but at least they are willing to deal with the issue in one way or another. To vote Republican means voting for people who can’t even acknowlege a fundamental reality of your life and who you are. For many African Americans, you might as well be voting for people who think babies are dropped down the chimney by the stork – no one that out of touch with reality can be trusted with a sharp knife, much less a whole government.
To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure what liberals are hearing when they hear the phrase “transcend race”. But what I do know is that the conservative conception of transcending race is hopelessly wrong. Continuing to cling to it is bad for conservatism, bad for the country and bad for our African American citizens. I would propose a different vision of “transcending race”. In my opinion, we need to see transcending race not as somehow “moving past” race as an issue, but as refusing to view the continuing existance of race as an issue in this country as a barrier. If we see afrocentric groups and churches as problems, we will never transcend race. However, if we see afrocentric churches and groups as serving the needs of a group of people who are still struggling with the legacy of racial oppression, we can try to find ways to join them in finishing this work. This would be transcending race by finding common cause with people whose experiences and perspectives are different than our own. When we don’t have to agree with each other in order to work together, we will start to transcend race. When we hear about yet another study demonstrating the disadvantage African Americans face in finding a job and seek a solution based on conservative principles rather than worrying that such things simply give African Americans an excuse to fail, we will be transcending race.
As much as many conservatives would like to think that race doesn’t matter, that we magically put African Americans on equal footing with whites with the passage of the Civil Rights bill and that the answer to race is to simply ignore it, reality is quite different. We have come a long way, but we’re probably reaching the limits of what the passage of time and bad liberal policies can fix. 15 years ago, health care was a liberal issue while conservatives insisted there was no real problem. Today, reality has caught up with us and conservatives have started applying conservatives ideas to a problem which we used to pretend didn’t exist. I think we need a similar about face on issues of race. Just like with health care, we’ve gone too long pretending there’s no problem to solve. But reality is starting to catch up with us.
We have a problem and continuing to allow liberals to claim it as their own issue will only ensure that it is a problem which we leave to our kids just as surely as our forefathers left it to us.