The New York Times reports a CBS poll which says 70% of respondents believe Obama “did a good job talking about race relations.” By the same margin, those questioned also felt he adequately explained “his relationship with Reverend Wright.”
Interestingly, while 6 out of 10 agreed with what he had to say about race in the U.S., the Times reports a decrease in the number of voters who think he would be a president who “unites” the country. “Just over half of registered voters now say he would be that kind of president, down from two-thirds who said so a month ago.” The figures are interesting, and illustrate some of the difficulties related to discussing “race” in this society.
A popular view in the U.S. is that the mentioning of “race” is a bad thing. To acknowledge “race” is, inherently, not being “colorblind,” and such a stance has been equated with racism. In many ways, the popularization of snippets from the writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. is, at least, partially to blame. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, King communicated a vision of a future where people would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” These words have been used to mobilize for varied forms of political movement: from civil rights to anti-affirmative action crusades. [See the arguments in favor of California’s historic anti-affirmative action ballot measure Proposition 209, passed in 1996.] Taken out of context, they suggest an idealization of a “colorblind society,” a world where people ignore each other’s “racial differences.”
But King and others were not so naive. They recognized that one’s experience in a white supremacist system had much to do with “race.” Accordingly, the “content” of a person’s “character” has as much to do with “race” as with anything. From this position, to not acknowledge and consider “race” is to contribute to the maintenance of a system of oppression. As poet Pat Parker wrote so many years ago in her classic “For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend”:
The first thing you do is to forget that i’m Black.
Second, you must never forget that i’m Black.
I suppose that is my point today. One of the forces that nurtures “racism” (which I use to describe ideologies of racial prejudice when insinuated into systems which allocate power) is a cultural inability on our part to properly acknowledge and discuss “race.” A speech like Obama’s is seen by many as invoking “race” when it need not be invoked, because their day-to-day existence relies on not recognizing “race” and its many roles. People of color want society to recognize the ways their consciousnesses and experiences are shaped by “race” in myriad ways, and yet few want to be reduced to that alone. Colorblindness isn’t just a c0-opted idealization of Martin Luther King; it is a distinct strategy to leave facets of our selves and our world uninterrogated.
What we need are new ways of talking about race and racism, when it relates to us as well as when it relates to others. Obama isn’t anything new on this point. We’ve always needed new ways to think about and analyze “race.” Our inability to do so isn’t just a fad, an unwillingness to discuss the past, or a societal limitation. It is the work of racism itself. Racism works by naturalizing its constructs and making invisible its processes. The L.A. Times ran an interesting story today that, unwittingly, displays some of the persistent and endemic shortcomings of our society on this front. We don’t want to talk about “race” because when we do, it exposes all the raw emotion and confusion people feel as a result of it. When we do, we don’t know how.
I will await to see what the final effects (if any) of Obama’s speech will be. Certainly, the mere speaking about these kinds of issues risks political power. More importantly, I wonder if people are ready to engage these issues in humble, empathic, and critical ways.