Sometimes questions are commands. When we ask “Could you open the window?” we are not inquiring as to whether the person is physically capable of performing the action. We are politely telling them to open the window.
In the same way, the question the media has been asking over the past year, “Is America post-racial in the age of Obama,” is actually a summons for us to ritualistically affirm that we are aware that race still matters in America. The stray person who claims that it doesn’t is to be corrected (and probably ridiculed).
And of course, the election of a black president never meant that we no longer perceived race. Nor did it mean that there are no longer bigots, or that subtle psychological tests will no longer reveal quiet biases in us all (black included). No one, that is, was under the impression that having a black president meant that Americans are no longer human.
Yet when it comes to race, Obama’s first year has shown us again and again that race does not matter in America the way it used to. We’ve come more than a mere long way – we’re almost there.
Back in February, the big race controversy was over the New York Post cartoon showing the shooting of a chimpanzee identified as the author of the stimulus bill. The reference was to the shooting of a chimpanzee a short while before who had mauled a woman, and to the widely mocked jerry-rigged quality of the bill. Apparently, however, we were supposed to “worry” that the cartoon would be misinterpreted by the ever-looming “people out there” as condoning the assassination of President Obama.
I told Bill Moyers at the time that in a few months we would be looking back on the brouhaha over that cartoon as slightly absurd. And indeed, eleven months later, many readers will barely remember the whole thing, the cartoonist is still on the job, the cartoon itself has been traced to not a single assassination attempt upon the President, and it is clear to most of us that our even entertaining the notion of that cartoon as serious news was merely evidence that America is a nation with a lot of free time and a hungry news cycle.
Next was the swimming club episode in July. The Valley Swim Club in Philadelphia turned away a black day camp group saying that there were too many children for safety – with one white member heard muttering “What are all these black kids doing here?” The headlines reveled in the idea of Jim Crow rearing its ugly head in the Philadelphia suburbs in 2009. But not for long: it turned out that the club had turned away two white camp groups for the same reason. So one woman said something unimpressive – if anyone is really waiting for an America so post-racial that women like her don’t exist they’re waiting for a massive mutation in our species’ brain pathways — but the club itself was just keeping children safe. Racism would have been letting the black kids stay.
The second that was out of the headlines came ‘Gates-gate’, with the word on the street being that a white cop accosted Henry Louis Gates for trying to break into his own house and arrested him for talking back. “Ain’t nothing post-racial about the United States of America,” Gates’ friend and colleague in the Harvard Afro-American Studies department Lawrence Bobo crowed.
But the facts, as they came out, validated neither Bobo’s tone nor the general narrative it implied, of an America little different from the racial attitudes of Mad Men “below the surface.” The woman who called the police seeing Gates trying to get into his house turned out not to have mentioned that he was black. The cop, James Crowley, was no Mark Fuhrman, having taught classes on how to avoid profiling and with no record of race-related problems on the beat. And Gates had gotten so ugly as to cap on Crowley’s mama, surely germane to a decision as to whether to take him down to the stationhouse.
We closed out the year learning about Tiger Woods’ fondness for porn stars – but despite predictable knee-jerk tendencies to read it as a race story because Woods is “racial,” it was just a story about one more philandering athlete. Woods’ fundamental blankness only underlined the racelessness of the business. The blackest thing about “Tiger-gate” has been the sentiment among some black writers that his embarrassment is just desserts for disassociating himself from black identity as a “Cablinasian.” But to the extent that this kind of mudslinging qualifies as “racial,” it’s hardly something whites need feel guilty about.
David Mamet’s new play Race gets it right, nailing our current race debate as a web of melodramatic, often outdated and hopelessly contradictory postures preventing any kind of honesty in discussion. Fittingly, while Race was in previews, the Curb Your Enthusiasm finale had Michael “Kramer” Richards making light of his N-word gaffe of 2006. Remember how the furor over that incident was supposed to be a teachable moment? Well, what did we learn? And if we learned anything important, then what’s so funny just a few years later?
America isn’t perfect and it never will be. There remain racial disparities. But tracing them to racism becomes trickier by the year, and when it gets to the point that the teaching moments become cartoons while cartoons are propped up as teaching moments, clearly we’re not in Kansas anymore. After Gates and Sergeant Crowley met with President Obama at the White House, the participants promised that there would be another meeting. Will there be? Or was that more posturing, formula along the lines of saying “See you soon” to people you may never meet again? After all, if the three did meet again, what would there be to talk about? Tiger Woods?
Except for over that beer, the president hasn’t had much time to muse over whether he or America is “post-racial” – nor have most of us. The economy is torpid. People nationwide are losing their homes.
A health care bill is limping towards passage. We’re ramping up the war in Afghanistan. Iran is probably building a bomb. Muslim fanatics are trying to kill us here where we live. Upon which we must ask: is how America feels about black people truly one of this nation’s most urgent problems?
To return to the “question” in question: Is America post-racial? Well, is the question really intended to ask “Is the treatment of black people still so grievously biased and unjust as to constitute a moral stain on our nation, making a mockery of our democratic ideals and requiring redress with all deliberate speed”?
If so, then the answer to the question “Is America post-racial?” is yes.
Let’s face it. It’s what we wanted. Wasn’t it?