One of the prerogatives of advanced age is the right to say things that others can’t or won’t. For many people of advanced age, the decision to speak truth becomes non-negotiable, and elision is replaced by a determined and consistent effort to tell it like it is. This can explain the inappropriate uncle at Thanksgiving – the one who asks whether a certain member of the family has gotten off the drugs or announces that the turkey was better last year.
In the best cases, our elders become thoughtful and careful narrators, who bring the wealth of their life experience and observation to our understanding of the world. They provide us with a sense of the arc of history, reminding us of the cyclical nature of life’s events, and the ever-present possibilities of change. And so it was that former President Jimmy Carter courageously put a name to the elephant in the room of political discourse this year. In an NBC interview President Carter cited racial “animosity” and a feeling among some whites that “African Americans are not qualified to lead this . . . country” as lying beneath the surface of some of the extreme opposition responses to President Obama.
Republicans, of course, denounced his remarks. More troubling was the response of Democrats, who carefully distanced themselves from Carter, disavowing the former President’s identification of racism as a source of some of the most disrespectful conduct directed at the President.
But the response to President Carter by leaders of his own Party reflects a critical problem that helps explain why our discourse about race is so often smothered before it even takes its first breath. Whites are often reluctant to call out racism because they know that they will stand alone. Too often, those whites who are courageous and honest enough to break the wall of silence that surrounds race, are rewarded by ostracism and denunciation. They are left alone to defend publicly what is understood and only spoken about behind closed doors. Their candor is instead regarded as a kind of transgression, the violation of a silent pact – one made among anti-racist whites — who adhere to the view that naming racism will only empower it.
Instead it is silence that emboldens those who traffic in racial stereotypes and appeals. And it is a testament to the ongoing power of race in our society that so many have reacted so vehemently and uniformly to condemn Carter’s observation. No one can deny the superior vantage point from which the former President made his observations. As a Southerner who has closely and keenly observed race and racism for a good portion of the 20th century and who has remained engaged in social justice and political work into the 21st century, former President Carter certainly has the bona fides to speak authoritatively about the salience of race in political life. Carter certainly does not have a reputation as a racial zealot or as an intemperate or hysterical political commentator . And yet his analysis was dismissed out-of-hand by Republicans and Democrats alike.
One understands, of course, the political considerations at work. Republicans are in willful denial about the motivations of some their most extreme members. Democrats, hoping to continue their tenuous hold on a majority in Congress, have no desire to slug out the race question with swing voters in key competitive districts. Likewise, President Obama, as the first black President, has built a potentially transformative coalition of voters – combining young people, traditional Democrats, and white working class voters in swing states –to support an agenda advanced by country’s first black President. The fragility of the bonds that brought these voters together after the disastrous Bush administration cannot be overestimated. A president with an agenda as ambitious and important as President Obama's cannot afford to have his work dragged into the undertow of unproductive racial discourse, in which he’ll be regarded as a dishonest broker simply by virtue of being black.
But by now it must be apparent that wishing won’t make race go away. (Many middle-class blacks have tried this, only to be snapped back to reality at a police stop or a cab stand). As we’ve seen this past summer, race will continue to be a significant factor in our social and political life for some time to come. While we’ve made enormous strides as a country, passing milestones in the past year that many of us had not believed possible in our lifetime, we are not yet out of the woods. We should not condemn the messenger who speaks this simple truth.
In fact, our tremendous progress on race ought to provide space and permission to speak more candidly about race. In some ways it seems that the opposite has happened. The election of the first black president and the confirmation of the first Latina Supreme Court justice has engendered in some on the right a sense of racial takeover. To allay those irrational fears, many of us are walking too carefully, trying not to empower racism by naming it. But silence is only regarded as weakness by these forces. They’ve become increasingly emboldened, taking over the public space in ways that are negatively redefining the terms of our public discourse.
We can, of course, never really know whether President Carter is right. That’s the nature of racism in its modern form. Absent hurled epithets we can only surmise – based on history, context, comparison and our own experience – whether racism lies at the bottom of some of the right’s responses to President Obama. But certainly President Carter’s views are worthy of serious consideration and respect. Countless psychological and social science studies have identifed the role of unconscious racism in our society. We know that deeply held racial beliefs and stereotypes can infect our conduct and views. We also know how powerfully historic forces continue to resonate in our political life.
But somehow, even as we celebrate and acknowledge the ongoing influence of some historical influences on our contemporary experiences and values, we insist that our country’s fairly recent history of blatant and extreme racism has no ongoing significance for how some are responding to our president. We have produced a society in which we readily acknowledge that racism exists, and yet we will never own up to any specific manifestations of it.
Perhaps most disturbingly, other whites will observe the treatment meted out to our former President and become even more reluctant to publicly acknowledge the ongoing existence of racism in our society.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.