The election of Barack Obama was the Lexington and Concord in the latest great battle of race in America. We are a nation at war with itself. For all of our desire to move beyond the narrow confines of many of the events of our tragic history, we cannot. The president's election gave new life to what had been lying dangerously dormant for the better part of 50 years.
Perhaps it's an unspoken concerted effort to keep race as a center plot in the story that is America. Perhaps it's an inherent inability to think in those hallowed "post-racial" terms that seemed to be on a nascent rise not too long ago.
I have come to the conclusion that ours is a nation defined in part, if not in whole, by racial differences. Race is hard. Race is the hardest thing that the United States will ever have to face. It's harder than any threat from Syria. It's harder and more complex than any convoluted scheme that Vladimir Putin can conjure. It's more serious than any Great Recession. (By the way, we're no longer in one.) The issue of race has the potential to destroy this country because it's the most dangerous weapon: It's one that we wield in our very own hands.
It is my firm belief that the people who clamor on about pushing forward in a post-racial society miss something very important: Our nation was never meant to exist as a post-racial society. The treatment of race, especially as a means to subjugate, is quite literally built into our Constitution.
I generally don't enjoy talking about race with fellow members of my own black race, because at some level I'm never incensed or passionate enough. I don't enjoy talking about race with my white counterparts, because I feel an inherent need to not play the victim card. I skew toward the nuanced and even-keeled analysis. I hear myself say things like, "There were no completely innocent parties in the Trayvon Martin case," or, "There is reason for pause when examining what happened in Ferguson."
My aversion ends now. There is a war raging. It isn't imaginary, as some on Fox News would have you believe. This war predates the very founding of our nation. The warning shots were fired when African labor was ferried across an ocean to a foreign land. The opening salvo was the colonial fractionalization of those who didn't have the fairer pigmentation. The pivotal incursion was the failure of this country's leaders to begin abolitionist policy implementation when the rest of developing Western nations began to do so. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments saw a brief ceasefire before an insatiable and tyrannical general by the name of Jim Crow began his 100-year reign of terror.
The heroism of what individuals did during the civil rights movement cannot be underscored enough. These warriors secured a truce in the onslaught. They got it enshrined into law, and finally the guards began to slowly and warily come down. Peace, however, was never established. The insidious undercurrent persisted rather unrelentingly. It gave way to new proxy battles like affirmative action, affordable housing, equal-access laws, gender discrimination, homophobia, predatory lending, the persistent welfare state, excessive police force and a new form of xenophobia unheard of since the days of the Know-Nothing Party.
Listen: No one in this country likes to talk about race. It is hard. It breeds discontent. It requires radical honesty. None of these things has been a particular strength of our fair nation. Our preferred method is extended dialogue, philosophical evolutions and slow yet steady moral and ethical realizations. Call it the Daenerys Targaryen approach to public policy. This is how our democracy has withstood countless tests across its still-young life. We weren't the beneficiaries of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Would that have worked here? Who is to say? I posit that the way forward has to be something fundamentally American. In my mind it comes down to three realizations:
- There is systemic racism in this country. It's not your fault. It's not mine. If you're looking to blame someone, look to the founders, who were trying desperately to establish a new country and set forth a new vision for the world. They cut corners. Unfortunately for us, those corners included a race of people and had reverberations for generations beyond their time. They left us the check on this one -- with full faith that we could cover it.
- Conversations about race are inherently American. As I said, a glaring reminder of how much race played into our founding still exists in one of the most beloved founding documents the world has seen. Are there racists in America? Yes. Are there race baiters in America? Absolutely. With this knowledge in mind, we can approach each other across difference and weed out those voices that aren't adding productive perspectives to the conversation. (Hint: "Productive" means seeking to edify others and empower those who can't speak for themselves, not just making people angry with no path forward).
- We will never be a post-racial society, and we shouldn't want to be. The incredibly delicious thing about being American is the unparalleled amount of diversity that flows through the veins of this country. Absent race, we have nothing from which to build multiple cases for social progress. Racial and ethnic differences give us culture. Sans race we're a bland people with too many nukes and a horrendously underinformed populace. Race, my friends, keeps us interesting. To paraphrase Melissa Harris-Perry, race is our "thing." It's neither good nor bad. It just is. The task then becomes to handle that "thing" with candor, respect and the natural curiosity that comes with being human. I need everyone who has ever said "Stop making everything about race!" to kindly have a seat. Everything in this country will always be about race. Even in 2050, when the average face of America is a beautiful multiracial tapestry, race will still be our thing. That's OK.
To be certain, our country is better than what happened to Mike Brown in Ferguson. Our country is better than what happened to Trayvon Martin. There are facts that we'll probably never know, but the broader point that's missed is that two mothers no longer get to tell their young sons goodnight. The America that I love is far greater than that -- and whatever circumstances led to that.
The time for reflection is over. The time for action is now. Let us finally be the generation that brings the lasting resolution to America's race war by meeting the undercurrent of injustice with radical and unabashed truth. We can do it. It just takes one honest soul to begin the new conversation. It just takes one to be a part of the solution.
Let's be the solution. The times demand it. Our country deserves it.