Civil Liberties

Why Can't We Have a Smart Conversation About Race?

We live in an allegedly "colorblind" society, making it even harder to have a truly productive discourse about race.

On Friday, the press rejoiced over the strangely dubbed "beer summit" between President Obama, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley -- as if a photo op could generate the national conversation about race that we truly need.

We live in an age when the United States has elected a black man as President, and where open bigots and racists are driven from the public square. Yet the so-called "colorblindness" that now rules our conversations about race makes engaging in a mature, reasoned, meaningful discourse about the persistence of racism even more difficult.

Negotiating this dynamic is a process akin to that of viewing a shadow projected onto a screen. In this example, one group sees the original object, what is in fact a concrete example of racism. The other group only sees the shadow. Through learned experience one group comes to understand race and racism as lived realities. Simultaneously, the other group sees racism as an outlier of sorts, an inconvenient experience, the result of overly sensitive minorities looking for any excuse to be aggrieved, or as an example of a simple misunderstanding where race is not truly operative as a relevant variable.

In keeping with President Barack Obama's appeal to a "teachable moment," the arrest of leading African American scholar Henry Louis Gates outside of his home, as well as the gender and racial dynamics at play in the Judge Sotomayor confirmation hearing represent a rare and privileged opportunity for White America to see race clearly--as something more than a set of shadows or projections.

The Quiet Indignities of Racism in a Colorblind Age

The spectacle of these events--their explicitly public nature--has made visible the racism and sexism that many black and brown Americans endure as a matter of course as they diligently pursue the good life and the American Dream. For these strivers, class mobility or professional accomplishments offer little protection against the indignities of racism. In fact, these all too frequent annoyances have come to be expected as a fee for entry, as one more set of unstated obstacles to be negotiated as one climbs the ladder of success in America.

The use of the word indignity to describe the racism of a colorblind age is a carefully chosen and measured one. It captures how the reality of race has changed over time, while also signaling to the particular ways that race continues to operate in the present. In its most benign examples, the latter operates through such euphemisms as "driving while black;" "shopping while black;" "renting while black;" or the many other seemingly benign and polite turns of phrase that disguise how race continues to contour everyday life. Similarly, the ways in which racism appears in the workplace where behavior that would be rewarded in white men is described as "arrogant," "uppity," or "aggressive" when displayed by people of color (and in the case of the latter, women) further speaks to these quiet indignities that must be suffered and negotiated if one is to be successful in America.

In the most pernicious examples, as the Amadou Diallo shooting in New York City tragically demonstrated (apparently black men should never reach for their wallets when questioned by the police lest they be shot 41 times), a failure to learn the informal lessons of race can have horrible and unexpected consequences. Thus, the rite of passage that greets young black boys on the cusp of adulthood is quite often a conversation about how to interact with the police. This talk involves a set of guidelines and rules about deference, speech, and conduct. In short, it is a lesson on how to survive, and continues as a ritual that has in some form or another likely existed up from slavery into the present. This right passes on the long held experience and knowledge that as a black man you will always be subject to violence, accusation, or threat at the hands of white authority figures regardless of your demeanor, dress, or affect. The pleading by black parents to their young boys that they should "not get themselves killed by the police"--the fact that one group of citizens proceeds forewarned that their lives are often imperiled when interacting with the State--is perhaps the most damning indictment of the persistent reality of racism in twenty-first century America.

The treatment of Henry Louis Gates by the Cambridge police department resonates precisely because it is such a shared experience. His arrest stings so much because it proves once again how these quiet indignities can be magnified into a life-threatening situation. Furthermore, while one knows that class privilege is no defense against the indignities of race (it often modifies these interactions but never truly deflects them), it is shocking, but not surprising, that Gates could be treated in such a fashion. He is a leading intellectual who has excelled in American life. The arrest of Gates is laden with powerful symbolism: if they can do it to "him," in his own home, what protections do the rest of "us" even have? And playing devil's advocate, if one assumes even the most generous readings of the incident at Gates' home in favor of the police officer in question, can one not reasonably assume that a White professor of Gates' demeanor and age in the same position would have been treated quite differently? Is it so absurd to assume that the police officer would have at best apologized, or at the least demurred, once the identity of the professor had been sufficiently confirmed?

The teachable moment here requires sincere and reasoned empathy: in looking at the facts of race in this case, one has to put themselves in the position of a man confronted in his own home by a police officer who has already confirmed your identity.

The discourse that has arisen surrounding the arrest of Gates is compelling because it teaches a lesson about the shadow of history and race in America. On one hand, many conservative white Americans viscerally defend the police with an appeal to "law and order" and "respect." For them, the State has almost always been an ally. To imagine the police violating their rights or treating them in a different manner because of their race is outside of their cognitive and experiential map. Also, in the ways that the police have often been enforcers of the color line, this defense of police authority is tinged with an understanding that they work protect "good," "white," "middle class" people. As some have echoed: if you are innocent you have nothing to fear from the police.

For people of color, and black Americans in particular, the police have often been the face of an oppressive and racist state. As is well documented, black and brown communities are often policed quite differently from white communities. The former is approached as something to be occupied and controlled, where the latter is protected and treated with respect. Historically, police have enforced many of the laws that attempted to marginalize black Americans as second-class citizens, and in many of the worst instances of organized racial violence in this country, white police were part of the rioting, murderous mobs that led racial pogroms against black communities throughout the United States. As a function of a shared collective experience, there is likely not one black family in the United States that does not have a story about being harassed or suffering ill treatment at the hands of a police officer. In total, respectful treatment by the police is not an expectation it is often a surprise. And one's innocence often has nothing to do with a presumption that as a black person you are somehow guilty of a crime, or embody a presence that is immediately suspect.


The apparent difficulty, if not inability, to communicate how history, experience, and identity came to a head with the
arrest of Henry Louis Gates on the porch of his own home for "disorderly conduct" signals to the often intractable nature
of race as a lived experience in America. Ultimately, the arrest of Henry Louis Gates is a lesson for White America that these indignities are not the stuff of fiction or imagination, or alternatively an experience unique to the "black underclass," a group that can be easily denied a political voice and marginalized by an appeal to a narrative of "pathology" or "bad culture." The frightening lesson here is that black and brown people (as well as the poor) can at any time be subject to abuse by the police--even in the presumed safety and dominion of one's own home.

White Men Behaving Badly: the Trials of Judge Sotomayor

The Judge Sotomayor's confirmation hearing was a second example of the indignities of race in the age of colorblindness.The spectacle of her trial, with the posturing, questioning, and near harassing tone of her Republican interlocutors made clear how race and gender remain operative as categories that people of color have to deftly and carefully navigate if they want to have any chance of being successful in their chosen careers.

Most tellingly, the Sotomayor hearing further exposed the myth of meritocracy where one's success is earned and does not have to be qualified or explained to a hostile and suspicious audience, an audience that can discount your many triumphs because of the color of your skin or gender. The ability to minimize Sotomayor's professional accomplishments proceeds from the assumption built into the wicked phrase, "qualified minority (or female) job candidate." Contained in this convenient label is an assumption that for a person of color to be qualified for a given position that they are somehow an anomaly. This candidate is by definition an exception. Notice, as a testimony to the power of whiteness that there is no equivalent category: however erroneous, there is never a presumption that a white male is not qualified for any job or position.

By extension, and as displayed in particular by her most vocal critics on the Right, there is an almost pathological blindness and myopia where to be white and male is to be "normal." Somehow, Sotomayor's signal that as a human being one may have experiences that influence one's perception of events and interpretation of the law--and that he or she should be honest about this and grapple with it--was read as racist. Ironically, given the checkered past of such critics as Senator Sessions, Sotomayor's detractors voiced a fear that she would offer an interpretation of the law where white people, and white men in particular, would not be treated fairly. In their fear filled delusions, white men would be made victims, unable to secure fair redress from the nation's highest court. And perhaps most tellingly, instead of being praised as an example of the Horatio Alger myth made real, Sotomayor was viewed by the conservative imagination as anything but a "real" American success story.

From this point of view, whiteness is the universal default for all things and it is never to be examined for bias, as possessing a prejudicial "empathy" for one own kin, or as occupying a subjective position. In total, whiteness is reasonable, rational, and neutral.

Senator Sessions' near obsession with Sotomayor's much explained "wise Latina" remark; Tom Couburn's allusion to the
I Love Lucy Show and that Judge Sotomayor "has some explainin' to do;" or Senator Graham's indictment of her temperament (in a lecturing moment during which he virtually called her a "bitch") speak once more to the quiet indignities of colorblind racism and sexism.

In Sotomayor's smile and good temperament, one can imagine a quiet annoyance. Surely, this was not the first time that she experienced such questioning of her competence and qualifications as a highly successful, Hispanic, female attorney and judge. One can in Sotomayor's patience almost visualize the mentors who explained the informal rules of success that would govern her career as an upwardly mobile, highly successful woman of color: sit and smile regardless of how your abilities and competence are questioned; tread carefully and wait for the proper moment to rebut any criticism lest you be accused of being emotional; you will always be assaulted as being somehow less than qualified; you will always, all things being equal, have to be significantly better than the other person to get the same acknowledgment or reward; these are the rules of the game, get used to them and learn how to navigate them to your own ends.

Certainly, we all have to learn the lessons that come with being a professional. Black, white, brown, or other, one has to comport themselves in a certain way and to bite one's tongue when appropriate. And of course, we have all at some point in our professional lives had to deal with a difficult boss or supervisor. But, what is missing in these interactions for white Americans, and white men in particular, is that they do not have to consider in mass if their race or gender, (or for heterosexuals, their sexuality) is a variable that is influencing their treatment. There is no decision rule which white men, and elite white men in particular, are socialized into that deems them prepared to accept the fact that their competence will always be questioned regardless of professional attainment, success, or qualifications. Simply, this is one of the many, and perhaps one of the greatest, psychic wages paid by whiteness.

In much the same way that Henry Louis Gates' treatment by the police resonated because African Americans saw it as a common and unifying experience, Judge Sotomayor's hearing offers a very public insight into the often privately held experiences of female professionals and people of color. Here, the teachable moment is that the very dynamics that govern the workplace remain deeply shaped by the social realities of racial difference and white privilege.

The Rage of the Privileged Classes

The arrest of Henry Louis Gates, and the treatment received by Judge Sotomayor during her confirmation hearing, both speak to a righteous anger about how race continues to impact the lives of people of color. Sometimes these experiences are merely "inconvenient." At other times they risk tragedy. What is most telling is how class attainment and a life trajectory of upward mobility offer little protection from racism in a country without racists, and where colorblind racism is all too frequent.

While on the surface some would assert that these are minor indignities--Judge Sotomayor and Professor Gates are both rich and successful, and if anything they symbolize how America has transcended race. From a neo-conservative reading of events, the growth of the black and brown professional and managerial classes are actually barometers for how racism is largely a thing of the past, and that the remaining obstacles to success are rooted in "bad culture," character defects, and laziness among the urban poor. What this perspective ignores, and consequently is unable to grapple about racism in the present, is that even among the black and brown upper classes, race in many ways continues to trump class. This is very revealing for how it speaks to the semi-permanence of race as an enduring American dilemma.

There is another privileged class that is central to the politics of race in the age of Barack Obama. If politics is about a struggle between change and permanence, the political theater that was the Sotomayor hearing, as well as the conservative detractors of Henry Louis Gates, both speak to the rage of a white privileged class. In the vetting of Sotomayor and the repeated charge that she is a reverse racist, unfair to "good," "hardworking," men like New Haven firefighter Frank Ricci, and to paraphrase Pat Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh, that white men are now an oppressed class in America, we see the anger and hostility of a group that fears it is no longer relevant. Likewise, the twisted appeals to "real Americans," the false right wing populism of the Republican Party, calls for a new culture war, the "patriotic" Tea Parties of Glenn Beck and Fox News, and the resilient popularity of now former Governor Sarah Palin, speak to a sense that the world is moving in a direction where white conservatives specifically, and whiteness in general, may not be as central to American life as they once were.

Although I am deeply suspicious of any claims that white America is somehow under siege, it is telling that while the rage of the black and brown privileged classes is about equal treatment and fairness, the rage of the white privileged class is centered upon retaining power and control over the master narrative. In the present, white elites have not lost any power. Yet, the mere perception that their primacy may be under threat or challenged by a changing America generates a great deal of insecurity and paranoia. Ultimately, one must ask: how will these raged possessed white elites, especially those on the Right, continue to push back against what they see as an unfavorable tide of history? And what will be the consequences for the rest of us when they do?