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09.17.09

America's New Racial Reality

The post-racial era that Barack Obama was supposed to initiate seems never to have arrived. But blacks’ old contract with America is over, and everyone—Skip Gates, Maureen Dowd, Jimmy Carter—is weighing in.

So let’s get this straight. Henry Louis Gates denounces a Cambridge police officer in Gates’ own living room. President Obama, referring to the Gates incident, says the Cambridge police acted “stupidly.” Two black kids beat up a white kid on an Illinois school bus this week for unclear reasons, and in a flash Matt Drudge makes it a national story. Rush Limbaugh cites the incident as out of “Obama’s America,” where “white kids get beat up with the black kids cheering.” Maureen Dowd suggests that Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” outburst at President Obama may have been partly ignited by race, with the epithet “Boy” hanging in the air as an unspoken suffix. No sooner is Dowd slapped down than former President Jimmy Carter weighs in to say, yes, Wilson’s outburst was “based on racism.”

“Is your baby racist?” a recent Newsweek cover asks, a question that suggests how deeply unsettled we are. America properly took the election of Barack Obama to the presidency as a threshold moment, but it seems many people assumed there would be no crossing of that threshold into the next room. Wrong. The news, from Joe Wilson to Jimmy Carter, is telling us what the next room looks like.

America properly took the election of Barack Obama to the presidency as a threshold moment, but it seems many people assumed there would be no crossing of that threshold into the next room.

Long ago, during slavery, it was required that owned Negroes never display unhappiness with their condition. Here is the testimony of the former slave John Little: “They say slaves are happy because they laugh and are merry. I myself, and three or four others, have received 200 lashes in the day, and had our feet in fetters; yet at night, we would sing and dance, and make others laugh at the rattling of our chains. Happy men we must have been! We did it to keep down trouble, and to keep our hearts from being completely broken; that is as true as the gospel! Just look at it—must not we have been very happy? Yet I have done it myself—I have cut capers in chains.”

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After slavery, and even through the relative liberation of the civil-rights movement, this requirement was only somewhat revised. Still forbidden was any open display of anger by blacks (hence the mainstream marginalization of Malcolm X), with a special taboo against anger by the rare black who was admitted to—or earned—a position of power. The gentlemanly Colin Powell embodied a version of this tragedy, when, for all of his high standing and high-mindedness, he so sheepishly bent to the Bush administration’s will to tell its lies about Iraq at the United Nations. Nothing was made of Powell’s being black, and who knows whether, privately, he ever became enraged at being so misused. But who can doubt that the nation would have been well-served by an angry denunciation, at the time or later, of what he’d been ordered to do?

But the Obama era is different. At the time of the election last fall, nearly four out of 10 blacks told CNN pollsters that racism was a serious problem for the country. By this summer, after the astounding election, that number was pushing six out of 10. Less laughing and less merriment. It may be that in the new room into which Obama has led the nation, the light shines more brightly in the shadowy corners, laying bare realities that make some whites afraid, and some blacks angry. The Bible says that the truth will set you free, but first it may piss you off.

Obama is not above all this, but he has made savvy political calculations and has taken pains, in the name of “civility,” to eschew any display of his own anger. His denunciation of Jeremiah Wright’s jeremiads were a necessary pre-election affirmation of the old deal. Angry black men need not apply. Obama’s repudiation of his own use of the word “stupidly” to characterize the Cambridge police department headed off a losing confrontation with police unions everywhere. And his current refusal to be drawn into a racial analysis of Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” is at the service of a focused political effort to get health-care reform through Congress. Civility is a virtue, but it is also a trump card.

To make the larger point, take the example of Serena Williams, who recently exploded at a linesperson during the U.S. Open: The mild-mannered Arthur Ashe no longer need be the only image of a black tennis player. If Serena Williams is hypersensitive to the racial moods of the mostly white crowds who watch her play in Arthur Ashe Stadium (the other U.S. Open stadium is named for the perpetually grinning Louis Armstrong, not for, say, the grim Miles Davis), she is just paying attention to an aspect of the real. (Perhaps Serena’s outburst was provoked, in part, by memories of the racist heckling she endured in a finals match against Kim Clijsters eight years earlier at the Ericsson Open.)

If Henry Louis Gates takes racial profiling for granted, that’s because his eyes and ears are open. If black teenagers feel unaccountably upset with the systems they confront in school, and on school buses, it’s because the one thing they have learned for sure is that, mostly, they have already been left behind. Race does not explain every black defeat, nor does racism define every criticism of black behavior. But even the category “black behavior” points to the problem. To be color blind is not the same as being blind to white supremacy, which may be gone as an overt political program, but not as a fact of the American condition. Blacks are saying that the old contract with America is null and void. No more dancing capers in chains. Blacks, too, can be angry. The case can be readily made that they have more to be angry about than anyone.

James Carroll's recent book is Practicing Catholic, a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, House of War, winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine's Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.