MAXWELL: There’s no escaping racial politics

3/23/2008 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

At last, thanks to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s “liberation theology” sermons, race has returned to center stage in the American conversation.
Now, if they wish to, liberal pundits and politicians can jettison the nonsense that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has transcended race. And Obama himself can stop allowing his admirers and worshipers to portray him as one who has transcended race. No black person can transcend race.
Now, if they have a mind to, right-wingers can stop condemning the thing they call “identity politics.” One’s race or ethnicity or gender, to a larger or lesser degree, is that person’s identity. To claim otherwise is to be disingenuous or something worse.
Perhaps now the nonsense that race is a thing of the past will stop. As Columbia University’s Sig Gissler describes it, race “is America’s rawest nerve and most enduring dilemma. From birth to death, race is with us, defining, dividing, distorting.”
Blacks, as members of a real minority group, live race. The overwhelming majority of them are acutely aware that their race constitutes what sociologists refer to as a “master status.” To whites and other non-blacks, black people’s skin color, their most visible characteristic, is the most important piece of data about them. Blacks cannot, moreover, control someone else’s interpretation of and reaction to their race. This reality is inescapable.
In his bookThe Audacity of Hope, before he became transcendent, Obama was keenly aware of his racial identity: “I am a prisoner of my own biography. I can’t help but view the American experience through the lens of a black man of mixed heritage, forever mindful of how generations of people who looked like me were subjugated and stigmatized, and the subtle and not so subtle ways that race and class continue to shape our lives.”
Obama’s wife, Michelle, clearly understands race. In her 1985 thesis at Princeton University, titled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” she wrote: “My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘Blackness’ than ever before. I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second.”
Based on some of her recent comments, Michelle Obama still feels the burden of being black, a stranger in her homeland.
Race has America flummoxed. No scholar has definitively theorized about race. Fancy language cannot explain it. Obama cannot transcend it. And the voguish genetic and anthropological reports of late – arguing that humankind is one big family – have not yielded useful clarity on race and race relations.
Race confounds our understanding precisely because, besides being ever present, it is subconsciously lived by the victim and the perpetrator, making it a seamless shroud of complex and conflicting sentiments and behaviors. Furthermore, race is so seemingly familiar that many of us fail to realize that just as it harms the perpetrator and the victim alike, it indicts us in the same way, joining us, black and white, at the hip.
While most of us view ourselves as being decent, honorable and ethical, the acknowledgment of race shames us, and our shame angers us, which explains, in part, why when race comes up in conversation, even very smart people often begin to smirk, roll their eyes, sigh or excuse themselves from the room. Talk of race reminds us that for all of our laws and claims of believing in equality, we are creatures of discrimination and exclusionism. And race is one of the most convenient ways to discriminate and exclude.
And so, here we are, having pretended for the last 15 months of the presidential campaign that Obama had left race behind. But last week in his Philadelphia speech, Obama came clean: “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. 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.”
In other words, we cannot transcend the complexities of race because we lack the collective stomach and the collective maturity to deal with it. I have said it dozens of times in my columns, and I will say it again: We need to acknowledge race, deal with it honestly and try to repair the harm it has caused for so many generations.
The pity is that Obama had to be forced into discussing race and did not do so of his own accord. Race is, as he now knows, a natural part of the American landscape.