Race and our post-racial age

This has always stuck with me, but it’s only in the past few years that I’ve been able to process it and come to terms with it.

About twenty years ago I was visiting a friend in Marina Del Rey. I got on the elevator, then saw a young black man about my age rushing to get on. I held the door open for him.

The first thing he said was “You’re lucky you’re white. You’ll never get stopped like I just was by the sheriffs.”

I protested that I was Latino, and subject to the same discrimination. He said, “You may be, but you look white. You’ll never be stopped.” He then got off on his floor.

Needless to say, I dismissed his assertion that I was “white”. I was Latino, part of the Prop 187 generation. We were fighting for our place in the sun. I was with the oppressed.

But here are a few facts.

I’m Cuban. That off the bat sets me apart from most of the Latinos in California. Cubans are always thought of as the “good Latinos”, not like those other ones who just want to take.

And I’m not only Cuban, but a white Cuban. That doubly sets me apart from most of the US Latino population. Cuba, like the US, has a horrifying history of slavery and oppression of its black citizens. Even in the Communist era, most people in high ranking positions are white.

It took many years, but eventually it did get through to me that my skin color conferred advantages and privileges upon me. That is merely a fact. I will most likely not be pulled over by a cop while walking down the street. I will not be stopped and frisked for no reason. I will be given the benefit of the doubt where people with darker skin will not.

When Barack Obama was elected, many of us felt as if a historical weight had been lifted off our shoulders. “Look, we elected our first African American president, and it happened so soon after Dr. King’s assassination!” There was a sense of national euphoria during the heady times surrounding the 2008 election.

But almost immediately it went to seed. Some on the Left were immediately disappointed that he wasn’t going to govern as their idealized version of an oppressed minority finally scaling the heights of power. And many on the Right were convinced not only that he would, but that he was.

I’ve documented the explosion of racial animus in our post-racial age elsewhere, all triggered by Pres. Obama’s election. But the previous week has seen it take hold of the national conscience in a way which has been extraordinary even in light of the past six years.

The twin racist rants of right wing darling Cliven Bundy and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling have brought the issue of race to the forefront in a way which the trudge of daily indignities suffered by Pres. Obama, most powerful man in the world, hasn’t. With Bundy, the Right had invested so much in him that when it turned out that he was an unreconstructed racist with some unorthodox views of how blacks lived better under slavery, the implosion was sociologically pleasurable to watch. As for Donald Sterling, his views are nothing new; but it’s always different when it’s on tape. A problem the NBA had swept under the carpet for more than 30 years finally exploded in all its lurid ugliness. Sterling’s belief that he “gave” his players houses, cars, and jewelry—i.e., that those mostly black players didn’t in fact earn any of their good fortune, but were beholden solely to his own good graces—jibed closely with Bundy’s own critique of “the Negro”.

These events were the volcanic eruptions of barely contained racial geology. Far from signalling that the country had moved beyond its racially fraught past, Pres. Obama’s election set off an earthquake of racial pathology. The tectonic shifts through which the country is passing demand that any path towards justice will be ugly, violent (verbally certainly, physically very often), and played out on the public square. Sterling’s and Bundy’s comments are notable because they weren’t couched in the well-practiced code words used by most of the Right since the days of the Civil Rights movement. For a large cross-section of our fellow citizens, we are beyond speaking metaphorically. The barbarians are at the gates, and coming for our women and children.

It is easy to despair and believe that Pres. Obama’s election was merely a mirage; that the future still lies with the Bundys and Sterlings of the world. But, consider this. Not only was he elected; he was re-elected, by much the same coalition. Consider this: most of Bundy’s most ardent supporters in the right wing media have been forced to distance themselves from him. Consider this: Sterling’s comments have incited a wave of revulsion.

The always-wonderful Nancy LeTourneau had this to say:

I’d suggest there are two reasons for us to be clear about this. First of all, its important to note that the rhetoric of superiority is failing. People of color like President Obama, Justice Sonya Sotomayor and yes, Magic Johnson are demonstrating every day that they are the intellectual, political and business equals to white men. No longer confined to the fields of sports and entertainment, they are not only excelling at what they’re doing – they’re calling out the barriers that still exist (IOW, not playing the “good Negro” game). That threatens the whole fabric of white male entitlement.

But perhaps even more importantly, they’re doing it in a way that doesn’t leave any room for rational critiques from the naysayers. For example, in his speech on racism during the 2008 primaries, Barack Obama not only empathized with those who have been on the receiving end of racism in this country, he also spoke about the plight of white working class Americans and acknowledged the anger they feel. And much to the indignation of many on the left, the President has consistently held out his hand to those who disagree with him politically to work towards finding common ground.

Lacking any rational response, the entitled are left with only their hatred and fear. It has been unmasked and no longer lingers underground. The question that leaves for the rest of white Americans who are observing all this is: Now what? Are we really going buy into the need to “take our country back” to fighting over our perceived entitlement? Or are we ready to exorcise that fear and let it go? Its up to us. 

From the perch of my middle age, I’ve come to accept that I’ve benefited from a privilege which I denied I possessed. It’s a privilege not only of race, but of class and education. But the rationales for that privilege are falling. The election of America’s first black president—Harvard graduate, Law Review editor, constitutional scholar—was a perhaps terminal body-blow to white privilege. That he came by his education through dint of his own hard work assaulted class prerogatives. For many reasons, Pres. Obama was the right man in the right place at the right time; but certainly for our stalled conversation on race he has been a godsend. The racist caricature of him doesn’t hold with a majority of Americans, even those who aren’t on his side politically. What does “take our country back” mean? And are a majority of white Americans going to throw their lot in with the likes of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh.

It is not up to minorities to equitably solve the problems of race. They can only be solved by a national consensus, the commonwealth coming to an agreement that privileges of race, ethnicity, and class can no longer continue in the 21st century. When the son of a black mailman from Chicago’s South Side, the daughter of a white Appalachian coal miner, and the child of an established family of wealth can all confront the world on the same terms and with the same tools, then we can say to have made progress on race and class. Until then, the work continues.