Sunday, May 11, 2008

Race Persists

We are beyond race.

That is the comfortable little myth that many of us white folks like to spew to make ourselves feel better about a history that clearly indicates that we are not at all beyond race. These people (We?) like to believe in an accelerated curve, a Whiggish and inexorable belief in improvement on the one demonstrable blotch on our national escutcheon, that has somehow innoculated us from centuries of reality. The candidacy of Barack Obama allows even those who do not, will not, support him to claim perfectibility on the one issue about which Americans have been sadly, tragically, imperfect.

Unfortunately there are times when reality kicks us in the teeth, or at least ought to. What to make, after all, in this supposedly color-blind society, about the fact that our misguided drug wars disproportionately effect African Americans? What does this tell us about our racial myths, and more importantly, how we deal with them?

Many of us are wary of decisions, supposedly race-neutral, on, say, voting rights in light of America's still demonstrably not race-neutral policies. Many of us are wary of claims that we live in a time when race is no longer a factor, because of the relative successes of Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas and Barack Obama. Indeed, we are wary precisely because of the facile ways in which we allow the prominence of a miniscule number of black Americans to substitute for a real discussion of the country's racial past.

Conservatives call such concerns "race hustling," a phrase notable only for its cynicism, vacuousness, and, yes, racism. And yet how many other issues in American history actually manage to sustain as relevant without actually being relevant? Issues that do not matter fade into obsolescence. This one continues to vex precisely because it matters. Would that we had an honest discussion about it, as Obama has done more honestly, and more frontally, than any American in the country's history has undertaken.

We can pretend that it does not matter. In fact nothing has ever mattered more.

[Crossposted at the Foreign policy Association's Africa Blog and South Africa Blog.]

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