Toward a More Perfect Union?
In an excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Speech: Race and Barack Obama's 'A More Perfect Union,’ edited by Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, a white hip-hop novelist writes about the audacity of post-racism.
How can this be, when the Ferraros, Imuses and Lotts of the world tiptoe back into the mainstream after a few probationary months, their best intentions unimpugned? Even Gibson, whose anti-Semitic rant was truly epic, had his incoherent, responsibility-dodging apology promptly accepted by the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish watchdog group that has never stopped vilifying Farrakhan.
The story behind the story is complex, one of changing identity in a changing country. Perhaps no two groups in America share such an intimate history as Jews and blacks; by turns it has been beautiful and tense, unified and vituperative. Both groups have been shattered and scattered, displaced and enslaved, and both have made outsized contributions to the cultural life of America. Both communities, perhaps by the nature of diaspora, have wide margins, in addition to existing on the margins of American life. By this I mean that the ratio of people who feel ambivalent, ambiguous, full of unresolved questions about their blackness or their Jewishness, is high in relation to the number of people nestled snugly in the bosoms of those communities. The pain and perspective engendered by this double marginality are important ingredients for art, and in the desire for social justice.
Jews and blacks have been united by this shared Otherness, and also pitted against one another because of it. At the root of the Jewish retreat from the coalition of which Obama speaks is the way in which Jewish assimilation has relied on the immutability of black Otherness as a foil. It has been an Other more Other than their own, and sometimes one to measure progress by their distance from.
As the Jews have been accorded more and more of the privileges of whiteness, many have decided, consciously or otherwise, that it behooves them to change their bedfellows. Fifty years ago, it was far more difficult for Jews to be complacent or hypocritical about race: they didn’t have the option to pay mere lip service to the cause because they understood that they were implicated in it, both as potential victims and potential oppressors. The benefits of whiteness were fewer for Jews, and more readily contested. Thus, the morality of allowing them to accrue was easier to address honestly, and find lacking.
There is, of course, much more to the story – more than I have the space to go into, and also more than I know. I realize, too, that I have addressed the reasons for Jewish pullback from Obama’s “historic relationship,” and said nothing of black actions or motivations. This is not because I wish to cast all the blame on one side, but simply out of a desire to stick to what I know, as someone who has discussed race with Jewish audiences quite a bit lately.
One question I was asked regularly at JCCs, as I proposed that more disturbing than the pickled comments of Farrakhan, Jackson, and Sharpton was the reasons Jews held so dearly to them, was “What about Jeremiah Wright?”
The query was always met by nods and murmurs of agreement from the audience – which, I should add for the sake of context, tended to be made up largely of people born well before the Truman administration.
“What about him?”
“Well, he’s said some things… some anti-Semitic things…”
Silence. Had my interlocutors responded that Wright’s church had honored Farrakhan as “exemplifying greatness,” that would have been something. But it never happened. Rather, the logic at work seemed to be that a black religious leader was in the news for inflammatory statements, and therefore he must be an anti-Semite. Even if no evidence to that effect came to mind.
What will it take, then, to reverse the “fraying?” What more could Obama have said in Ohio about blacks and Jews, or in Pennsylvania about the larger conundrum of race?
Any answer begins with radical honesty of the sort most politicians can ill afford to muster. In Ohio, Obama could have risked declaring himself committed to moving beyond the old politics of suspicion and condemnation, detailed the reasons for the splintering of the black-Jewish alliance, and laid out a plan for reestablishing trust and a commonality of purpose. In Pennsylvania, he could have framed the road to racial reconciliation in the same terms he has been brave enough to apply to climate control: as a journey that will require real sacrifice, profound reevaluation of our lifestyles and the unsustainable practices on which they’re built. He could have looked into the living rooms of white America and declared that institutional racism is alive and well – that it benefits all those considered white, and also exacts from them a high moral toll.
But the political costs of such statements would have overwhelmed Obama’s campaign. And while the senator’s commitment to presiding over a sea change in America’s racial climate appears to be perfectly sincere, it is the level of commitment for which he is willing to call that matters. Soft-peddling the reality of white privilege might help bring people to the table, but if they come under false pretenses, they won’t stay.
All of this points up the fallacy of a national conversation on race led by a president, no matter how thoughtful or inspiring. Not just because political constraints prevent him from addressing the issue with the candor we need, but because a chief executive’s role in moving the country toward a state of post-racism should be to address structural discrimination on the level of policy. Dismantling the system of racist policing and biased judiciary that has lead to the epidemic incarceration of black men will do more to heal the nation’s racial wounds than even the most compassionate and sustained dialogue. So will revamping a dysfunctional educational system that reinforces racial and economic disparities.
If President Obama wants to attack the issue on all fronts – as he must – then he should use his healing hands to sign over funding for a national program of community forums, to take place in town halls and high school gyms, JCCs and YMCAs, mosques and movie theaters. The structure and facilitation of these events would be delegated to people like Vijay Prashad, Tim Wise, Tricia Rose, Robin Kelley, bell hooks, Van Jones, Rosa Clemente, and hundreds of others who have made drawing people into compassionate dialogue on race their life’s work.
There would be incentives for attendance: whatever it took to get people in the door, from parking-ticket forgiveness to free-cable vouchers. The conversations would need not tackle race head-on; the issue’s pervasiveness is such that almost any topic of universal concern raised in a multi-ethnic setting will intersect with it, from law enforcement to primary school education to jobs. The appetite for dialogue is there, as surely as the bitterness; what we lack is the language and the context to engage. And nothing can tap the veins of goodwill running through the body politic quite like genuine interaction, particularly in this age of technological mediation and shrinking public space.
What’s fascinating is how quickly the imagination falters in anticipating the direction these conversations might take. What happens, for instance, after a young black man in need of employment testifies about the difficulty of overcoming the perception that he’s a thug, and a white soccer mom raises her hand to asks “well then, why do you dress like that, with your pants so low and your T-shirt so big?” Who speaks next? Does the black man’s grandfather concur with the soccer mom? Does the woman’s fourteen-year-old son – attired just like the job-seeker – realize, at this moment, that black people don’t have it as easy as he thought? What do the local business owner, the high school guidance counselor, the policewoman have to say?
Our access to one another is so limited, so constrained, that the journey into uncharted territory is a swift one. It is a journey on which Obama’s “Toward A More Perfect Union” is an important stop, but the road stretches well beyond it – toward racial critiques more daring, policies more radical, and healing more profound.
Adam Mansbach is the author of several novels, including 'The End of the Jews,' winner of the California Book Award, and the bestselling 'Angry Black White Boy.'