"Let me just get these dead flowers out of the way."
That was my cousin speaking. A wide cup on her kitchen table was filled with dried and wilted blossoms. She lives in Arizona, a state roiled by debates over immigration. As a journalist, I came to cover those debates, and a few free hours to see family were a lucky byproduct.
In measured tones, my cousin explained that the flowers were for her oldest daughter. Classmates had given them to her after an older white man spat on her and called her a nigger as she ran cross-country practice. The family filed a police report, but the man was gone. My cousin's daughter is 13.
"When did this happen?" I asked.
"Last week," my cousin said.
Not 50 years ago, during Jim Crow; or 150, in the antebellum era. Just the week before, a bookish black girl minding her own business in a very good, mostly white neighborhood was spat upon and called a nigger. The school gathered together to express outrage and sympathy. When given the choice to stop running if she felt unsafe, my cousin's daughter decided to stay on the team.
This wasn't a story I expected to hear, even though I had come to Arizona to listen. Just hours after hearing my cousin recount the assault on her daughter, I met people who had protested the new immigration law, SB1070, some of whom said they had been spat on. The next morning I interviewed Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has (whether you love or hate him) turned law enforcement into a theatrical art form. He talked about being surrounded by yelling protesters at most public appearances.
Then I spoke with a militia member who polices the border with his sidearm, Tea Party supporters, and members of a tribe that spans the U.S.-Mexico border and has concerns about how both nations have treated their people. Temperatures ran hot in Arizona, physically and metaphorically, and it was hard to find political common ground. Or a even a shared reality. For example, SB1070 sponsor State Senator Russell Pearce accused the law's opponents of incivility, yet wouldn't admit that some of the people who sided with him acted poorly.
I saw plenty of evidence that many people on both sides are all revved up, at times out of control. Sometimes people who have taken no side bear the brunt of the anger, like my cousin's child. Yet as a society, we've shown a remarkable desire to say that race and ethnicity are issues of the past, despite clear evidence to the contrary.
Pretending that we are post-racial when we are not wastes our time and defies common sense. Instead of using our energy to form a more equitable nation, we spend it shoring up fictions of how evolved we are socially.
I prefer the Avenue Q approach to race: a little disclosure, a little forgiveness and hopefully some healing, too. As a chorus from the grown-ups-only puppet musical puts it:
If we all could just admit
That we are racist a little bit,
Even though we all know
That it's wrong,
Maybe it would help us
Before we get to some kind of Promised Land where children really are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, we have to deal with our own volatile times and outsized expectations. Many of us wanted to see an America that was colorblind or post-racial. Maybe one day it will be. But we aren't there yet, and pretending that we are will only keep us from the hard work at hand, from finding a sane approach to the border to dealing with the economic stress hitting so many cities and towns. A gift of flowers may not change the world, but the continuing volley of spitballs and epithets will undermine our ability as a nation to communicate, connect and grow.
Farai Chideya is traveling with a team of journalists to document how race, immigration and economics are affecting politics at the time of the midterm elections. The Pop & Politics project is produced by WNYC with American Public Media. Chideya is also the author of four books, including a road-trip-based journey through race in America at the millennium: The Color of Our Future.