The word nigger found its way back into our national conversation recently. Some tea party activists hurled the epithet at Congressman John Lewis. Along the way they called Representative Barney Frank a faggot and spat on Congressman Emanuel Cleaver. This venom was supposedly provoked by health care reform; it only revealed how debased our public conversation has become.
It is relatively easy to marginalize these voices as "a lunatic fringe" or as "a few idiots" consumed by irrational prejudices. For most Americans, this way of talking is simply out of bounds. We don't use these words publicly. By locating them on the margins, our innocence remains intact. But I worry that tea party activists are not so peripheral: that their mean-spirited words expose a sensitive racial nerve-ending that threatens, as it always has, the overall health of our democracy.
I am not so sure that our habits of the heart with regards to race have changed. And this worry cuts across ideological divides. Old habits take the form of racist rants or calls for race-neutral public policies. Many liberals, black and white, make the practical argument that President Obama cannot address racial inequality directly, because such efforts would jeopardize his ability to get reelected. That speaks volumes about where we are as a nation with regards to issues of race (It says as much about us and our limitations than about President Obama and his constraints). The idea, it seems, is to rid ourselves - malevolently or benignly - of the fact that individual and structural racism continue to deform the soul of the nation.
In his seminal work, Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah demonstrates that our nation is in jeopardy because our primary language is that of an insidious individualism. We are only concerned about our own individual desires and success. And any idea of the common good gets lost as we mistake our appetites for our needs. Some will even tear down the entire economic system in pursuit of their selfish ends. Ostensibly, our religious commitments should help in this regard. But too often, especially among Christians, we become insular and sectarian. Our faith fortifies our prejudices instead of expanding our reach towards others. When matters turn for the worse, the ugliness of our souls is too often revealed. We scapegoat and, forgetting the lesson of the Good Samaritan, we become indifferent to the suffering of others. Americans have a long history of doing this.
It is in these moments that a robust conception of "fellow-feeling" must be expressed. Not only must we denounce the rhetoric of some tea party activists, we must speak against it with all of our powers. It is not enough to say, as Michael Steele did, that hurling racial slurs or gay bashing is inappropriate. We must condemn unequivocally such words as un-American and as contrary to the view that we are all children of God. Otherwise we conform to them. We become complicit.
The occasion to talk about racism cannot only be these obvious racial flare-ups. Do we need Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to be arrested again or some tea party activist to shout nigger to direct our attention to what is taking place in black communities throughout this country? According to Michelle Alexander, more African Americans are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850; more African American men are disenfranchised today than were in 1870. Chronic unemployment devastates black communities and families throughout the nation, and the home foreclosure crisis reveals new forms of racism like reverse redlining. Must we wait until someone publicly reveals the ugliness of their soul? And do we condemn them in order to pat ourselves on our liberal backs?
It seems that much more needs to be done and said here. The tea party movement reminds me of the White Citizens Councils of the 1950s and 60s. Theirs was a passionate and, for some, respectable argument against the overreach of government: school desegregation threatened their form of life. They were wrong and needed to be vigorously opposed by their fellows. Sadly many stayed silent. Tea party activists feel that Obama and the federal government pose a threat to their form of life. And they give voice to that worry without any regards to their fellow citizens who disagree with them - revealing the malice in their hearts. But their malice cannot protect our innocence. We too become complicit in this ugliness if we refuse to address, substantively and directly, the night terrors that are engulfing black communities throughout this country.