One day I asked my college students their views on the state of race in America. A young lady rolled her eyes and clucked her tongue. "Well," she said, "maybe if everybody stopped talking about it so much, it would go away."
"Actually," I told her, "it won't."
Anybody who thinks they can simply wish away the frustrations of race is ignoring this country's very identity. It is as steeped in our culture as the American flag. From the nation's founding, race was an idea constructed to justify slavery. For some it has been a serviceable, if destructive, tool ever since.
Consider radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who regularly uses race to rally millions of loyal listeners with loaded statements, such as "melanin is thicker than water." And what about Glenn Beck, who pumped up the volume, ranting that the term "African American" is "stupid"?
To insist, as John McWhorter did in a recent article at The Root, that it's pointless to talk about race is to offer a really easy pass to some prominent and toxic people. These are major-league race hustlers who make a lucrative living fanning the flames of ethnic resentments to keep their ratings high. If sincere people — those genuinely committed to promoting thoughtful racial dialogue — withdraw from the conversation, we would effectively be handing the national stage over to the loons.
Ironically, it appears that the nation's first black president has done little to help keep that from happening. It would seem that Barack Obama, as a product of mixed parentage, is uniquely positioned and qualified to initiate a meaningful national dialogue on race. Yet he seems intent on pretending that America is colorblind — except when a Jeremiah Wright moment forces his hand.
The result? Obama concedes the mic to folks whose views are uninformed at best and dangerous at worst. Wild-eyed revisionists hijack the discussion and distort the facts. Remember Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's bout with selective amnesia? Barbour credited pro-segregation white Citizens Councils with integrating public schools. And what about Michele Bachmann's mangled account of history? She said that the Founding Fathers — many of them slaveholders — "worked tirelessly to end slavery."
Such misstatements reveal the astounding ignorance of such self-styled "patriots," who insist that they are qualified to lead a nation as ethnically diverse as ours. Those of us who know better can't afford to allow distortions to go unchallenged simply because discussions about race are complex and prickly.
Obviously, we don't need to talk about race for the sake of conversation. We have to talk about it because there is so much at stake. Remember, Bachmann signed a document asserting that black families were better off during slavery than they are today. Imagine what kind of legislation she — or others of her ilk — might promote if elected president.
Perhaps the most vital reason to press forward on dialogue is that race continues to affect our lives in concrete ways. Anyone who thinks that's pointless should consider James Craig Anderson, the Mississippi man who was beaten and run over by a group of white teens, apparently because of his race. Or maybe we should ask the millions of blacks who fill unemployment rolls at a rate nearly twice the national average.
These days, many blacks complain that they're weary, downright tired of wrestling with racial complexities that have dogged us for decades. Tired? Grappling with ideas is a day at the beach compared with facing lynch mobs or battling harsh Jim Crow barriers, as our ancestors did.
As McWhorter noted, part of the modern complexity is that racial challenges are subtler now than in the days when Klan members marched and publicly proclaimed their resistance to racial equality. Racists today may not broadcast their bigoted intentions, but they sure as hell are transparent in carrying them out. From anti-immigration campaigns against Latinos to the dreadful prison warehousing of black men, there's proof of racial malice everywhere.
So really, who can honestly question whether race is still relevant? And what's so daunting about our challenges that it would lead someone to suggest that there's no point in even talking about them, let alone taking them on?
Today we are armed with more education and resources than ever before. And threats to our safety are negligible compared with the past. Which means that blacks should not run away from complex racial issues. If anything, we should rush toward them, bringing all the mental firepower at our command.
As with some African Americans, many whites' efforts to confront the nation's racial legacy are sorely lacking. That seemed to be confirmed recently, when journalist Valerie Boyd wrote an article pointing out disturbing aspects of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling story, The Help. White readers by the hundreds flooded Boyd with hostile letters, accusing her of being racist. Such responses suggest that while many whites today claim to desire honest racial dialogue, they really won't tolerate being prodded to think beyond their comfort zones.
Maybe that's why so many blacks insist that President Obama couldn't promote more racial dialogue and at the same time win re-election to another term. As the thinking goes, he would run the risk of alienating whites or being accused of favoring African Americans. To be sure, in the effort to move seriously forward on the racial front, we're at an obvious disadvantage. For centuries, racism had the full support of every institution in America. Today the battle to stamp out racism lacks equal institutional force.
If we are earnest about confronting race, the nation must be prepared to go far beyond discussions and commit to some things we've never done. Like maybe devoting as much time, energy and resources in stamping out the problem as we invested in creating it. In moving toward such a commitment, we can hardly afford not to talk about race. To the contrary, we must confront it — relentlessly — until we get it right.
Nathan McCall teaches in the department of African-American studies at Emory University. He is the author of Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America.