Redefining "Racist" in the Rather Complicated Age of Obama

Human Rights

racism: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race (Source: Merriam-Webster dictionary)

If I had a nickel for every time someone has asked me "Is X a racist?" in the last year or so, I would be a rich woman (and therefore off sunning myself in Tahiti at the moment instead of chained to my laptop here on the East Coast, but I digress.)

Apparently, I'm not the only one. Not too long ago I had a conversation with a high profile black journalist about Harry Reid's meal of foot in mouth stew regarding the word "negro." This journalist joked that every time he/she gets asked whether or not some public figure is a racist following some public misstep or misspeak involving race, said journalist feels like replying, "How the __would I know? I've never met them, never asked them and don't know them or their opinions on race up close and personal." (Yes, you know who the journalist in question is and no, I will not tell you who it is because they did not expect to be quoted on the record.)

But I will say on the record that I second that emotion.

It appears that somewhere on the road to this imaginary post-racial destination that President Obama's election was supposed to magically catapult us to, that our country has made a few weird turns along the way and instead of ending up in Post-racial Land, (which is as mythical as Dorothy's Oz) we have ended up in Obsessed-With-Racial Land. I was reminded of this with the latest "Is he or isn't he a racist?" controversy to captivate us, this one involving news legend Dan Rather.

For the record: yes, Mr. Rather, I was one of those who tweeted about your comments. In the same way I would tweet about a noteworthy verbal gaffe by any public figure. Despite your noble efforts to clarify right here on the Huffington Post, your watermelon gaffe was executed with the same level of precision as Sarah Palin writing on her hand, which is to say, none at all. (Also, I checked with my Texas dwelling mom, who would kill me if I revealed her age but let's just say that she and Mr. Rather are not quite that far apart, and she has never heard of this alleged "common expression" regarding watermelons -- but maybe she just ran with a different crowd.) Yet in spite of that, I never accused Mr. Rather of being a racist. As our journalist friend said, "I don't know the man."

But I would agree with Mr. Rather on one point he attempted to make in defense of himself. I do think that the media is complicit in getting the story of race in the Age of Obama wrong. Clearly I'm not alone in this sentiment. According to a poll commissioned by UNITY, the coalition of journalists of color, and (for which I am a contributor) only 1 in 7 journalists of color think that coverage of racial issues by the mainstream media has improved U.S. race relations in the last year, while nearly twice as many believe it has worsened race relations.

If you were to turn on the television in the last year, you might think that between the Rosa Parks poster ripping town hallers, the epithet spewing members of the Boston PD, the all white basketball league, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, John Mayer's Klan friendly penis, Harry Reid's negro problem, not to mention the countless conservatives who have made monkey jokes and every other racially inflammatory joke about the Obamas, that it's simply not safe for we black Americans to leave our homes.

Don't get me wrong. These stories certainly tell part of the story of race in the Obama Age, but they do not tell the whole story.

What do I mean? Well, according to Pew Research Center's report released last month, nearly all millenials (those ages 18 to 29) support interracial dating and marriage, numbers which are significantly higher than those of any previous generation. No that's not to say that every racial problem in America has been solved, but it certainly does seem to denote that our future is not as grim as the media sure is making our present look.

So why does it seem that every time we turn around there is another "racist" being outed?

Well for one, because we now have a black president people talk about and think about race more than they have ever been forced to in the history of our country. We have had black celebrities and black billionaires, but the president of the United States is the only person that every news outlet in America must cover and every powerbroker in America must acknowledge. As we have seen over the last year, there has been quite a learning curve as members of the media, and the political and professional ruling classes learn how to talk about a person who is a member of the race that many of them have spent much of their lives and/or careers either ignoring altogether, or only acknowledging in passing. As I have discussed previously on this site, no one in his right mind would accuse Harry Reid, a white man who tried to elect a black man to the most powerful office in the land, of being a racist. (In case you didn't know, racists are not usually looking to help us increase our political power). But his use of the word negro made it pretty apparent that he had not given much thought to how people who look like me are addressed in his day-to-day life either. Now that his de facto boss is black, he has to.

Before the critics inundate me with the "Keli you are so naïve" letters, let me be clear. I know that racists exist in this country -- plenty of them. In fact some of them send me letters. But the problem with branding every person who says something clumsy or that makes us remotely uncomfortable with the scarlet letter "R" is that it desensitizes us, lessening the impact of the word, every time it's used after.

Think about it. A few years ago, calling someone a "racist" actually meant something. The person was a jerk, and even if you privately agreed with what they said, you would never say so publicly because you didn't want to be branded a racist too. But today, the "r-" word is thrown around so much that "racist" is practically becoming a conservative battle scar, as in "I had the courage to tell the truth about Obama's policy and got called a racist."

The other problem with throwing the word around is that if people become paralyzed with fear, and stop talking about race altogether, but more importantly stop telling each other the truth, then much of the progress we have made and continue to make will stop, period. Not too long ago I had a heated conversation that involved race (among other things), with a white friend. When the discussion finished we still didn't agree on everything, but we were honest and both understood more than we ever had before where the other was coming from and that has, frankly, made us trust each other more, not less.

But to me the most disturbing thing about how much time and energy we waste on someone who is racially clumsy, racially insensitive or just plain stupid, but in the end, does not actually appear to be racist, is that we end up not spending that time addressing issues that do have a racial component that legitimately need our time and attention. For instance, why is it that in our nation's capitol of Washington, D.C., where many of our elected leaders live and work, an AIDS epidemic with rates higher than those of West Africa, is plaguing the city's poor, black residents? If someone doesn't find a way to talk about and address the spread of AIDS among incarcerated men, and their subsequent infection of their partners upon release from prison, it is very possible that D.C.'s AIDS epidemic will become our nation's AIDS epidemic once again, at least among people who look like me. (Before you ask -- yes, Mr. Rather, I have tweeted and blogged about this as well.)

So in lieu of coming up with some racial/cultural version of the terror alert system (i.e. "What X said sounds like maybe it could be kind of racist so we're on yellow alert," versus "Rush Limbaugh is speaking so we're in a code red") we need to become comfortable acknowledging that today, there is a middle ground between the Barack Obamas of the world -- whose families and worldviews are that of a rainbow -- and the David Dukes, whose worldview, not. And we need to become comfortable acknowledging that most of us occupy this middle ground.

That means that all of us have probably and will probably say things regarding race that we wouldn't want broadcast on national television. They may not be blatantly racist but they may be really dumb.

So can we put casually tossing around "the r-word" in the same category as casually tossing around comparisons to "the Holocaust" and "slavery?" Which, as one New York Times writer recently pointed out, should not be tossed around casually at all.

Oh, and if you need further proof that there is some light at the end of the tunnel despite so many of the negative stories about race that have inundated our airwaves, just consider the officer who called Prof. Gates, "a banana-eating monkey." Yes he sounds like the textbook definition of a racist, according to good-old Webster dictionary (despite his assertions to the contrary). But remember that there were also white officers involved in his being found out, punished and ultimately fired from the force; an angle of the story that gives me, and I'm sure a few others, a tiny inkling of hope.

Which is probably why the news media didn't spend a ton of time on it.

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