The Clintons covered a lot of slimy ground in the run-up to South Carolina. They dismissed the relevance of Barack Obama's victory, chalking it up to black voters supporting their own. They put racially loaded jabs in blackface, through stooges like BET founder Bob Johnson. And they lured Obama into daily, petty spats that left his whopping victory feeling like a sideshow to the squabbling. Yet, for all their high jinks, the Clintons are not responsible for injecting race into the campaign; they just rudely forced everyone to acknowledge it.
Obama has eagerly embraced the notion of his racial transcendence. He has cast himself as the embodiment of a post-racial America and not so subtly compared his call for political civility to Martin Luther King's dream of racial equality. The latter appropriation is untidy, at best, but nonetheless compelling to his supporters. They summed up its conceit with an optimistic chant Saturday night: "Race doesn't matter!"
If only it were so. Glossing over race isn't the same as making it irrelevant, and the prospect of Obama successfully selling himself as America's first race-neutral president should worry black folks just as much as the Clintons' desperate race-baiting. Because, for all the recent talk about race and change, neither Obama nor Clinton is prepared to dispel the real "fairy tale" of this campaign: that America is even remotely ready to let go of its baggage about race. That black people have healed from past and present hurts. That white people are ready to relinquish their privilege. That we have overcome.
Obama himself made the point elegantly once, back when he wasn't running for president. He recounted a yarn his white grandfather used to spin, about boldly rejecting Jim Crow Texas. Barack's white mom was a grade-schooler at the time—a bookworm who didn't make friends easily, but who found a companion in a black girl her age. One day, as the pair lay reading in the family's yard, a bunch of ruffians passed by. "Nigger lover!" they taunted, paralyzing the girls with fear. Gramps said the attack so disgusted him that he packed up his life and moved to Seattle.
Inspiring, Obama grants, in recounting the tale in his memoir. But not entirely true. He later discovered that the family actually moved because, well, work dried up and a friend in Seattle hooked grandpa up with a job. "I don't entirely dismiss Gramps' recollection of events as a convenient bit of puffery, another act of white revisionism," Obama writes. "I can't, precisely because I know how strongly Gramps believed in his fictions, how badly he wanted them to be true, even if he didn't always know how to make them so."
Obama's words offer searing insight into white America's racial dilemma—the uncomfortable gap between the equality most genuinely want and the amount of privilege they're willing to cede to get it. Obama's cross-racial political appeal is at least in part due to his keen understanding of that gap, and to his ability to transform white folks' unease with it into something hopeful. Which may be enough to alleviate racial unpleasantries, but it won't make change.
To reach for the future Obama envisions, he must ultimately reject the racial exceptionalism he's been granted. If he does not, he will stand as the crowning achievement of a "colorblind" America, in which the success of a few obscures the degradation of millions—and lets everybody off the hook on creating equality.
Since the dawn of the Reagan era, the right has worked tirelessly to cement this paralyzing understanding of race in America. In the post-civil rights era, the argument goes, the playing field has been legally leveled, and racism, thus, is narrowly defined as an individual personality problem rather than a broad, structural concern.
Yes, there are rogues like Don Imus, this argument allows. But they just need a public tongue-lashing and some counseling to set them straight. And, yes, some blacks aren't making it, but that's also an individual problem. They need job training—nevermind if there are no jobs. They need marriage counseling—nevermind their below-poverty-level household income.
Like the "fictions" of Obama's grandfather, it's an all-too-convenient setup. It means no white person has to actually sacrifice for equality. If we all just get our hearts and minds right, everything will be OK. And what better proof that this fantasy is reality than a post-race black president? What could be more hopeful than a man who bridges the gap between America's dream of equality and its reality of vast, deep disparity.
Indeed, Reagan's America has long pined for such a man. It comes as no surprise that it was the Republicans who first pushed racially transcendent blacks to the upper ranks of government. Their real differences and sparkling talents aside, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, and Clarence Thomas share a role as not just balms for white guilt but, more importantly, as beacons of white hope, too. Like Obama, they have the power to turn fiction into fact.
If they can rise so high, people believe, we can dismiss the fact that a whopping 48 percent of working-age black men in New York City were unemployed in 2003. If they can be so healthy, we can overlook the 40 percent black-white mortality gap. If they can be so sharp, we can shrug off the still-separate but unequal public school system. All of these things may be tough public problems, but they are not racism. Race, as Obama's giddy throngs told us, doesn't matter.
Obama has sold his racial transcendence as proof of the American dream, and that may just make him our first black president. The question for black America is what he will do with the power he gains from shedding his skin. If he continues to avoid unpleasant questions about race, we're in deep trouble.
In his King Day speech, Obama did point out the structural racism that circumscribes too many black lives. Here's hoping that kind of talk continues. If he uses his transcendence to prod America into a long overdue examination of these structures, he could change the course of history.
Kai Wright is a regular contributor to The Root.