Race: The Non-Issue That Is
September 21, 2009
A few more words about last week's rudeness outbreak.
Last week I talked about why South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst during President Obama's address actually does matter. And why it was a bit more than just the distraction Wilson's partisans were making it out to be. (Well, since then there have been additional developments. The House voted, largely but not entirely, along party lines, to reprimand him — a purely symbolic gesture with no force at all, other than prolonging whatever embarrassment Wilson may or may not feel.)
Then former President Jimmy Carter said he believes some of the animosity directed at President Obama is related to his race. Carter said some people simply cannot tolerate the fact that an African-American is running the country.
And as for me, well, I received the predictable flood of insults from people who think if you mention race, or think about race, then you're whining, you're crying, and you should just shut up and go away.
Can I just tell you? I personally am over it. I think it is long past time to get down to the business of figuring out how to get more people access to health care and how to pay for it.
But one listener raised a thoughtful question I wanted to answer. She asked why I didn't also mention Kanye West's ridiculous behavior toward Taylor Swift during the MTV awards.
And Serena Williams' over-the-top outburst at the line judge during last week's U.S. (tennis) Open.
For the record, they were both wrong. So wrong. And I could even argue on a personal level their behavior was even more egregious than Wilson's, because, as we all know, if you're going to pick on somebody you should pick on somebody your own size. In both cases, West and Williams — and, let's not forget, fellow tennis star Roger Federer, who also cursed at a line judge two days after Serena did — went after people far less famous, and with far less stature.
But just because Kanye and Serena and Federer are more famous than Joe Wilson does not make them more important. I did not mention them last week because I think that what public officials do matters more than the actions of artists and athletes.
What public officials do matters more because they ostensibly represent not just themselves and their own constituents, but a civic ideal. And while many sports are ritualized conflict, and hip-hop can be, the whole purpose of an elected body in a democracy is to resolve real conflicts according to the rule of law. And according to the rule of civil society, quite simply, I hold elected officials to a higher standard than hip-hop artists or tennis stars, even rich and famous ones.
On the broader issue of whether race matters in Wilson's outburst as it did in the town halls, who can really be sure? But I do know that efforts to dismiss race out of hand ring hollow.
New York Times columnist David Brooks said he decided race was not a factor because when he was jogging on the National Mall the weekend before last he saw white anti-Obama protesters buying food at, and joining, a concert put on by an event called the Black Family Reunion.
Well, excuse me: As the example of Wilson's political patron, the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, reminds us, some white people have been eating black people's food and listening to their music and, yes, having sex with them for centuries without being willing to grant black and brown people human dignity, civil rights or the authority to govern.
The fact is that our racial history, rooted in systems of bondage based on race, has a very deep stem. It is like a virus that we don't even know we have until it is making us sick.
It's in the white flight attendant who bristles at hanging up a black man's jacket and doesn't know why; the black teacher who resents having to teach Latinos; the Asian girl who thinks she can't ask for help doing her math. Yes, it's in the black teen who overreacts to any perceived slight, and the white teen who thinks black culture is all saggy pants and do-rags.
Our racial history has left such profound scars on the psyches of so many of us that I really don't see how any thinking person can ignore the damage. Perhaps the time we spend pretending that race is not an issue could be better spent thinking about how to bring about a colorblind reality.