01/17/2013 10:36 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

In Black and White: Race and the Fiscal Cliff Negotiations

As debate over the economy's handling and prospects lumbers on, many are wondering if President Obama is too socially aloof to overcome the impasse with the Republican-led House. In Monday's press conference, a reporter offered that the president's insularity and antisocial nature is no longer conjecture, but a truism. The argument goes that if President Obama were friendlier with Republican leaders, he could get more done.

In his rebuttal, the president highlighted several instances of friendly outings with congressional leaders. But, quite frankly, these social calls are beside the point. Perhaps what we are seeing play out on the national stage is what happens every day in offices, schools, and communities across the country: the social divide of race and culture. In a town where relationships are the most powerful currency, if compromise hinges on an intercultural friendship between the president and Republican leaders in Congress, then middle ground will remain out of reach.

To most African-Americans in professional jobs, this conundrum is all too familiar. There is an inherent social discomfort in being the only black in the room -- a feeling that never becomes routine. Professional settings temper, but do not eliminate, the uneasiness that can be rampant at the office holiday party or happy hour. Even in the instances where the African-American is the most senior official in the room, he or she will most likely maintain an environment that comports to the social norms.

This is an obstacle that President Ronald Reagan and Speaker Tip O'Neill never had to face. It is a hurdle that President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich never had to leap. The Obama-Boehner dynamic is a new situation that not-so-coincidentally arrived at a time of the most divisive partisanship the nation's capital has ever seen.

Since the turn of the century, this social construct has been an issue for African-Americans. W.E.B. DuBois, the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, described this battle between mainstream assimilation and true African-American self-expression as a double-consciousness, or twoness. The great poet Paul Laurence Dunbar fashioned this dilemma as a mask that blacks must wear to blend in and feign comfort. These coping mechanisms are a form of social Darwinistic adaptations that allow some blacks to survive, compete, and advance in a paradigm that feels largely unnatural.

This twoness, however, is only manageable because reprieve arrives when the work day ends. The time alone, with families, churches, and social organizations, e.g, are therapeutic and energizing. It should be of no wonder, then, that the president revels in time with family and close friends instead of spending after-work hours engrossed in beer summits with members of Congress. African-Americans learn these rules and accompanying habits early in life. Even in a country with a rapidly growing minority population and the most racially and culturally tolerant youth generation in our history, it is impossible to entirely ignore the basic human instinct to be with those who are like us.

Consider the bestselling book from psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? This self-segregation is more than a learned behavior, it is instinctual. And while the nation has certainly progressed in race relations to a point where skin color is not the dividing line it once was, the cultural disparities are not as easily overcome.

The world that African-Americans are asked to succeed in is one where the inner-city black child who attends Harriet Tubman Elementary, Frederick Douglass Middle School, Booker T. Washington High School, and then heads to a historically black university is supposed to be able to show up in an office surrounded by white colleagues and immediately know how to function and thrive in an entirely different culture. If that student doesn't immediately understand and integrate into this entirely foreign social dynamic, they are labeled as unfriendly, standoffish and not a team-player.

The race conversation in this country is not just about racism, prejudices, and unequal opportunity. In fact, it's primarily about varying perspectives, approaches, and norms borne out of different experiences in America. Yet, President Obama is expected to assume the cultural behaviors of the majority and exercise social engagement in the way they deem acceptable. And when he does not, somehow he is the one who is at fault.

Of course, maybe the president really is an introvert. Maybe this has nothing to do with race, and he'd just rather be with his family than inviting those who publically disparage him and his views over for dinner. It is entirely possible that his multiracial upbringing makes the cultural differences less of an issue for him than it is for many African-Americans. But those positions do not account for any unwillingness of others to meet with president. As reports have shown, many 2010 freshman members of Congress turned down invitations to the White House.

The deals made in Washington for the good of the nation do not happen on the floors of the House or Senate. They are more often formed in personal conversations between members who have gained a respect and appreciation for one another outside of the political arena. So it is a natural inclination to wonder why the president hasn't just accepted this cultural practice and made better use of this tactic to reach compromise.

But to wonder and cast blame with no regard for the role cultural differences play in the larger issue of governance and personal relationships is shortsighted and disingenuous. Though not a trivial matter, certainly these differences can be overcome. Yet, race still remains a sensitive topic of discussion, and it is much easier to just label the president aloof and detached than admit in the age of diversity that culture may be an issue.

The reality is, with all due respect to the Republican symbol, race remains the real elephant in the room.