Thursday, December 5, 2013

Racism in the Obama era

I'm a day late to this one, but I wanted to make sure to note that yesterday Jonathan Chait wrote one of the most important articles I've read on racism in the Obama era. If you haven't already, please go read the whole thing right now.

In reference to the movie 12 Years a Slave, Chait makes this observation:
Notably, the most horrific torture depicted in 12 Years a Slave is set in motion when the protagonist, Solomon Northup, offers up to his master engineering knowledge he acquired as a free man, thereby showing up his enraged white overseer. It was precisely Northup’s calm, dignified competence in the scene that so enraged his oppressor. The social system embedded within slavery as depicted in the film is one that survived long past the Emancipation Proclamation – the one that resulted in the murder of Emmett Till a century after Northup published his autobiography. It’s a system in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person.
For a while now I've been agreeing with Rev. Dr. William Barber that we are in the midst of the Third Reconstruction. In the first we ended slavery and in the second we ended legal discrimination (ie, Jim Crow). Both of those involved white people essentially giving civil rights to black people.

The situation Chait is describing involves a whole different kind of challenge. With the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, white people are having to deal with a black man as not only our equal, but our leader. Too many of us are prepared for neither. While most white people would not support slavery or legal discrimination, we're not really ready to look black people in the eye as equals, much less see them in positions of authority over us. That is what centuries of programming has done to our collective consciousness...we assume deference.

It might make you uncomfortable to hear me talk about a collective "we" when I describe this form of racism. After all, its much easier to assume that its "those other people" who exhibit it. The truth is that I'm not here to judge anyone. All I know is that when it comes to my journey, I've been working on rooting out this assumption of deference in my brain's hard-wiring for at least a decade now and still find vestiges of it popping up occasionally.

I also am aware that one of the things that has disrupted that hard-wiring more than anything else is the experience of admiring the particular black man (and woman) who reside in the White House right now. Being witness to their daily exercise of intelligence, grace, compassion, and courage has helped establish new norms that challenge all the messages I received consciously and unconsciously over the years.

So this is what is happening to racism in the Obama era. It is tremendously healing for someone like me. But there are far too many people that fear this journey and therefore literally cannot see what is in front of their eyes. Their reaction is to degrade and dismiss what they're seeing in order to maintain the hard-wiring they've become accustomed to. The backlash is ferocious.  For now I'll just say that's their loss.


  1. This is so important:
    "Being witness to their daily exercise of intelligence, grace, compassion, and courage has helped establish new norms that challenge all the messages I received consciously and unconsciously over the years."
    Kids in 2013 don't have to undo those messages and they accept the black president and his family without hesitation. Unfortunately, it may not be fixable for many and the friction will exist until those who react so violently to our black president are no longer with us. But we have started on the path.

  2. Brilliant post, Smartypants. Thanks also for the link to Chait's article, which I found very perceptive especially for a "mainstream" magazine.

  3. It was a shock to me - reading "Team of Rivals" - that basically *all* those working to abolish slavery were still firmly convinced that 'Negroes' could not be trusted with the vote, or be white people's equals in other respects. Lincoln had to be quite explicit about that (whether he believed it or not, see Frederick Douglass comment: "I at once felt myself in the present of an honest man whom I could love, honor and trust without reserve or doubt.").

    Indeed, a third Reconstruction is necessary.