iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr.

GET UPDATES FROM Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr.
 

Why Blacks Know Race Is a Factor

Posted: 08/04/11 09:00 AM ET

Some people in this nation believe that race is a significant factor in the constant attacks against President Obama. Others believe that these attacks reflect only the normal level of criticism aimed at the occupant of the White House. But most blacks with whom I discuss this issue say they detect a level of disrespect and contempt they do not remember seeing in former presidencies. Even the reporting of journalists normally known as objective can display a negative undercurrent or leave a bad aftertaste when it comes to President Obama.

Of course, this difference in perspective could reflect white denial of a shameful racialist mind set, on the one hand, or a tendency by blacks to play the race card when circumstances frustrate their aspirations, on the other. But it is probably the case that where there is enough smoke, there are likely to be smoldering ashes or slow combustion somewhere nearby. It may be helpful to set forth the reasoning which leads blacks to such certainty about race as a factor in the less-than-respectful spirit directed toward the first African-American President of the United States of America.

I believe that a people who have lived through years of Jim Crow oppression, rooted in a history of slavery, see whiteness with greater clarity than their oppressors. Minority status forces blacks to discern more clearly the deep-down convictions of those who preside over the policies and protocols of black-white relations. Given the historical power differential between blacks and whites, blacks are required to be attentive to the way their white counterparts see themselves in relation to people of color if they want to survive and even thrive. They know that the ethos of whiteness is grounded in a strong matrix of white supremacist ideology, so deep that any sociological analysis which does not take it into account is deeply flawed. It is the water in which race consciousness has been conceived, is nourished and continues to float. Attitudes and behaviors, conscious and unconscious, are contaminated by this pre-congenital belief system. Evidence of its impact can be found in language, literature, art, neighborhood patterns, job configurations, differential economic opportunity, leadership expectations and social conventionalities. Like some viruses, it can lie hidden in the body for a long time and only flair up under certain particular circumstances.

In my book, "Whose Gospel?" I speak of white supremacist ideology as "The Gospel of Racial Exceptionalism." It functions like a religion in that the values it promotes are rooted in a vision of the structure of ultimate reality. It is ordained by God and must be maintained as a righteous duty. Violations of its rules and regulations are punishable by diminishment, social dysfunctionality and even death. White supremacy is not just a social arrangement: it is a race-based faith.

According to the doctrine of race as a religion, the racial characteristics of the in-group are the attributes of God. The white racist's God is white and confers sovereign power on whites. The other races are not divine like the special, elect white race, and whites, therefore, have a natural responsibility to define excellence and to preserve racial purity and their prerogatives of power. Thus, to be white and fail to be in charge of other races would make the white person a disappointment to God. The logic of this religion is circular: the ability to maintain superior power over other racial groups is compelling evidence of a special identification with God, since divinity confers special power to rule over others. At the same time, however, whites have the burden of maintaining the hierarchical differences, lest the foundational principles of white supremacy be undermined or exposed as illusory.

When people bow at the alter of racial superiority, they set themselves on a course that leads to false hopes, fictitious claims, faulty self-assessment and flawed relationships among members of different races. Distorted thinking and fear rob them of the genuine presence of those who are different. It produces suspicion and unnecessary mistrust. Vigilante corps of boundary patrols keep out the truth of our mutual dependence and the benefits of multicultural exchange. When people rely on surface appearances and false racial stereotypes, rather than in-depth knowledge of others at the level of the heart, mind and spirit, their ability to assess and understand people accurately is compromised. The god-of-race makes us run away from people and feel safer in the confines of sameness. Our fear produces knee-jerk spasms of avoidance and isolation. What a colossal waste of precious energy to create such a sad, sorry loneliness!

If my description comports with sentiments and sensitivities found in the hearts and minds of a sizable portion of our electorate, it may help to explain why responses to a black president may be significantly related to his color. If faith-based racial exceptionalism is as much a part of our national psyche as I am suggesting, it is likely that many whites may feel that the faith-like foundation of their world is crumbling. There was already a minor earthquake when President Clinton announced during one of his State of the Union messages that in a few decades there will no longer be any majority group in America -- only various minorities. But the election of a black president was a seismic disturbance on the Richter scale of consciousness. Could some folks believe that God is disappointed that whites in a weak moment allowed such a thing to happen? But they may also understand, on some level, that is not too late to repair the damage. If President Obama's first term of office can be made into a colossal disaster, the Ship of State may be righted, and we may be able to return to the normalcy of whites being God's primary representatives in places of power. We would then be able to recover from our national post-traumatic stress disorder.

The sarcasm of this exaggerated description is intended to magnify what may be only a hint of how white supremacist attitudes are affecting the spirit of these times. Although few are honestly articulating such strong anxieties about changes in population trends or in leadership, many blacks suspect that this disquietude is in fact insinuating itself into many places through disguised forms of dissatisfaction and disdain.

Whatever deeper concerns we may have about the future of whites and black together, we will be a stronger nation when we know the truth about the current state of white supremacist ideology. Only then can we work our way toward the realization of an American dream of "human race equality of being."