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Sure Race Is an Issue -- But Not for Me

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

In the weeks leading up to the Democratic primary in South Carolina the
yammering about the race issue started. All seem to agree that race is an
issue but ironically enough -- no one seems to think that it is an issue
for them.

I am grateful that we have put a gag on our racial prejudices. The way we
talk deeply affects the way we walk. But so-called political correctness
does render it more difficult for people to detect what they really feel.
Indeed, these days it takes a gumshoe to sound out the race consciousness
of whites. You have to stand sideways and put your hand to your ear to
catch what is really going on inside our psyches.

Much as we could discern it in the race divided reaction to the OJ trials,
so can you can hear history whispering at the ballpark, in the
disproportionate levels of rage that whites expressed towards Barry Bonds.
A few years ago, you could sense the race poison at work in the steam
coming out of white men's ears whenever you mentioned Mike Tyson's name.
You would have thought that the ear biter was a serial killer.

Sad to say, but I don't need to watch the placard-carrying fans at Bond's
baseball games to grasp the rumblings in my own basement. A few years back
I was in the parking lot of a bookstore when a middle-aged black man
strode by behind me. Before conscience could catch me, I instinctively
felt for my wallet. I could have banged my head on the car roof. It
literally makes me shudder to think of it now, but when I first started
teaching college two decades ago I am sure that I let my students of color
know, before I had any reason to think that they needed to know, that I
was available for extra help. This was the kind of chronic reality that
rippled out when Joe Biden commented that Senator Obama was articulate and
clean.

We should know the manhole-cover weight of all of the stereotypes that
abide in the underground of the American unconscious. And if all the tales
of white privilege are true -- and I think they are -- then surely it must
it rattle some nerves and bring the old toxins to life to see a man of
that race of once invisible men making a very serious bid to become the
President of the United States.

In his recent book, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Barack Obama and
Why He Can't Win
, Shelby Steele argues that part of Senator Obama's appeal
is that he does not make Caucasians feel guilty about being white. And
yet, as the Clintons have started in with their swordplay, the color drift
has started. While Obama clobbered Clinton in South Carolina, white South
Carolinian men went for their look alike, John Edwards.

No matter how disarming and warm he might be, doesn't Mr. Obama have to
come up against the devils and brain washing that those of us over fifty
have inherited? The kind of devils that last year had MSNBC analyst Pat
Buchanan burbling unselfconsciously, "I thought Amos and Andy was a great
show -- didn't you?" Call it the "Bradley effect" but I fear that those
demons have to materialize in the polls -- though they will be wearing the
masks of rationales that might make it hard for some people to recognize
themselves.

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