A few weeks ago, I was standing outside a posh bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with my friends of almost two decades. I made an offhanded comment about the ratio of blonde-haired-blue-eyed chicks to brown girls like me. It seemed like a zillion to one.
My pals, who are white, didn’t get why I was bringing this up. “No one cares about race except you,” one said.
I tried to explain my frustration with having to always choose between an all-black experience or being the “only one,” whether at work, in grad school or even out for a night in New York. I waited for a nod of sympathy; instead, my best friend threw her hands up and said: “How can we all be racist? Look at who is president!”
I didn’t have a response.
Right now the nation has embarked on a massive conversation about race surrounding the tragic death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. On Friday, President Obama weighed in. “I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out: How does something like this happen?” he said.
It’s an important conversation to have — but I fear it won’t lead anywhere. After all, we’ve seen plenty of these debates in recent years, invariably prompted by some tragedy or controversy. Think Troy Davis. Or Shirley Sherrod. Or Jeremiah Wright. Or Henry Louis Gates Jr. Or even Rodney King. We have big debates over racial prejudice and disparities in this country, and then nothing happens.
I thought things would be different by now. The Trayvon Martin story flared up exactly four years after Obama’s famous campaign speech on race in Philadelphia, a speech that made so many of us believe that Obama would launch a serious, enduring dialogue. But the election of the first black president hasn’t made it easier to talk about race in America. It’s made it harder.
Obama’s measured words on Friday only highlighted how removed the president seems from the candidate who gave that stirring speech on race four years ago. Obama was asked directly about “allegations of lingering racism in our society,” but he shied away. He rightly used caution in talking about a case that the Justice Department is investigating, and he offered a moving sentiment for Martin’s parents, saying, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” But he hasn’t grappled with this tragedy, or with racial disparities and divisions, along with us, guiding us in a way that only he can — as the commander in chief, as a lawyer, as a community leader and as a black man.
The Obama presidency is “post-racial” only in the sense that it gives us an excuse not to grapple with race anymore.
As I sat at my desk in a newsroom four years ago, Obama’s speech captivated me. Here was a politician who embraced his biracial heritage but also understood how tough it can be to navigate 21st-century America as a black person. A man who lived multiculturalism as much in his private life as his public life and could relate to what it was like to have someone who loved him dearly — his white grandmother — make comments about race that made him cringe.
I understood that this was a speech made out of political necessity, in response to the controversy surrounding Wright, his onetime minister. Obama didn’t make any bold proposals or even outline policies for his White House, as John F. Kennedy did when talking about religion almost 50years prior. Yet he genuinely seemed to want us to grapple with race — to talk about it.
“The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through — a part of our union that we have yet to perfect,” he said.
Once Obama became president, I thought he might be able to somehow help us break through the status quo of awkwardness and silence on race. And I wanted to see him tackle racial inequalities through federal policy, making the system more equitable and fair for Americans of all colors.
But the memory of the speech that day is a reminder of how little the conversation has changed. Less than a year after Obama was elected, Gates, a Harvard professor, was arrested trying to break into his own home, creating a firestorm over racial profiling. The following year, Sherrod was fired from the Department of Agriculture after an edited video misconstrued her comments about her work with a white farmer, depicting her as racist. In 2010, a black congressman claimed that a tea party protester spit on him and shouted racial epithets during a political rally. More recently, we’ve witnessed racially insensitive rhetoric surrounding the rise of Taiwanese American basketball player Jeremy Lin. And of course now the Martin tragedy.
Four years ago, Obama said some people had implied that his candidacy was “somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.” He dismissed that notion. But the idea — of racial reconciliation on the cheap, with deep divides still prevalent — reflects what I feel in my professional and personal life.
I have encountered many people who seem to believe, subconsciously or not, that Obama’s win is proof that America has reached the mountaintop. What more is there to say about race, they ask me, after this country so proudly and overwhelmingly elected a black president? They cite success stories as disparate as Oprah Winfrey, Jay-Z and former Time Warner chief Dick Parsons. But Oprah’s billions don’t counteract the dire poverty and unemployment rates in the black community.
Even the most well-intentioned white people, who fundamentally understand the challenges of race in America, often can’t understand why race, as a subject to wrestle with, can never be “over.” They can’t understand what it’s like to walk down the street and have someone fear you just because of your race. Or to go to your doctor’s office after-hours to pick something up and have someone think you’re the maid. Or to have someone give you a virtual pat on the head for being “articulate.”
And they certainly won’t admit that thugged-out guys scare them. Or that if they saw a young black man in a hoodie walking in their neighborhood, like Martin was in his father’s neighborhood outside Orlando last month, they wouldn’t call 911 but they might cross the street.
Just as no well-intentioned person would ever admit those things, no one wants to admit that Obama’s election has changed the way we talk about race. But he’s the elephant in the room peering over so many discussions. His election is part of the reason that blacks, especially those who have “made it,” are hesitant to talk about persistent racial inequality. We don’t want to be accused of whining or being angry for bringing up a problem that many people think is now relegated to history. After all, if Obama could do it, so can any black man, right?
I’ll be the first to admit that I struggle with starting these conversations myself when I have personally seen so much progress from my grandparents’ generation to my own. But there is still so much to talk about.
How do I articulate that it’s harder for me to find jobs with a “ghetto sounding” name, when a man with a “funny sounding” name holds the highest office in the land?
How do I explain how it feels to have almost every accomplishment that I’ve ever achieved be attributed to affirmative action? Most recently, a white PhD student in my program told me that I would sail through graduate school and land a wonderful gig, despite the difficult job climate, because of the “black thing.”
Or how can I not think of redlining’s impact when I, with my good credit and sizable down payment, receive notification that I, too, had been a victim of a discriminatory lender when I bought my condo?
It would be unreasonable to ask the president to spend most of his time talking about race. I don’t need him to attack former House speaker Newt Gingrich every time he calls Obama the “food stamp president.” But with the recession’s disproportionate impact on black Americans, the spirited immigration debate and the Occupy movement’s focus on economic inequality, I am convinced that now is a good time to talk about race. Even if we are tired of it. (A 2010 Blair-Rockefeller Poll found that 56 percent of whites said we talk about race too much, compared with 18.2 percent of blacks.)
Billy Vaughn, a diversity expert who trains Fortune 500 and federal employees on how to become more culturally competent, said that Americans think they’re “open and tolerant” — but no one knows the best way to be open and tolerant. He said minorities tend to be more comfortable talking about race because they’re exposed to discussions about it in their communities, but this doesn’t mean that they understand how to engage in those tough conversations any better than other groups.
“People of color are saying that ‘I want you to get it,’ and the privileged people are saying that ‘I’m not doing it.’ . . . The whole conversation can get out of hand because people are talking past each other,” Vaughn said.
And the president has not really continued the conversation. He seems to speak about race only when absolutely necessary. That’s disappointing. We need more than a beer summit to hash out the very real problems that he talked about just four years ago.
And Obama knows it. In a 2010address to the National Urban League during the Sherrod controversy, he noted that while progress has been made on promoting fairness and equality, there is still “work to do.”
“We should all make more of an effort to discuss with one another, in a truthful and mature and responsible way, the divides that still exist — the discrimination that’s still out there, the prejudices that still hold us back. A discussion that needs to take place not on cable TV, not just through a bunch of academic symposia or fancy commissions or panels, not through political posturing, but around kitchen tables, and water coolers, and church basements, and in our schools, and with our kids all across the country,” Obama said.
He’s right, of course. That speech, more than the sweeping address in Philadelphia, offers the kind of insight that could lead to real change. Because kitchen tables, water coolers or bars in New York City are where real racial progress can be achieved in America. And that’s where I thought having Obama in the White House might make a bigger difference.