It’s past time for Americans to have a conversation about race, a panel of cultural and academic luminaries agreed at a crowded Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center on Wednesday. What the rules of that conversation are, who the participants are and where the conversation will take place is less certain.
But while the ground rules are being debated, the election of Barack Obama may have already served as a sort of premature finish line, inducing a collective historical amnesia and forestalling further discourse.
“My wife and I have a very comfortable life and we live in a very secure community in which our children are able to assimilate into the American dream,” Brown Prof. Glenn Loury said. “That’s true of a sliver of the African American population, but meanwhile the majority languishes and the background politics are hardening against them. The legitimacy of race-based arguments on their behalf is vanishing even as we speak.”
Panel speakers included Gwen Ifill, PBS broadcaster, Charles Blow, New York Times columnist, Doug Wilder, former Virginia governor and the first black governor since reconstruction, and Anita Hill, a legal commentator, among others. It was billed as an exploration of race and media in the 21st century. Moderator and Harvard professor Charles Ogletree set up the debate by playing three video clips, beginning with an extended clip of President Obama’s reaction to the arrest of Henry Louis (Skip) Gates Jr. and Glenn Beck’s bizarre reaction, when he said, “The President has a deep-seated hatred of white people.” The second clip showed Shirley Sherrod’s extended comments to the NAACP and their ensuing treatment by the media. And finally there was a recent clip from a WBBM-Chicago newscast that purported to show a four-year-old’s “disturbing” reaction to a gang killing. In the clip the boy is asked by the newscaster, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” The boy responds, “I’m going to get me a gun.” What was omitted from the broadcast was the boy’s explanation, “I’m going to be the police.”
About the Henry Louis Gates arrest, Ms. Ifill said the President was chastened by the experience.
“What he learned from that episode was that the only thing anyone heard was that he called the Cambridge police stupid,” she said. “His one, two, three parts of ‘Well on one hand, on this hand, on the other hand’ was clearly not going to make it on the air. So when you see critiques of the President that he is too cautious, that he holds back, that he doesn’t come out guns a-blazing, these are the lessons learned.”
Mr. Ogletree wondered whether Mr. Obama risked being seen as “the angry black man,” a premise that New York Times columnist Charles Blow rejected.
“I think you do yourself a tremendous disservice if you don’t come across as wholly human,” he said. “The idea that you cannot stretch the breadth of humanity and be passionate or angry or happy or celebratory makes people look at you suspiciously.” Mr. Blow compared the effect to that of the phenomenon of the “uncanny valley” in computer animation, where cartoonish characters are embraced by the audience but more lifelike renditions are rejected as unsettling facsimiles.
“If you’re so close to being whole but there is something about you you refuse to give, it makes people recoil in a way because they become suspicious of what they see,” he said.
But Mr. Blow said academic debates about the President’s blackness, and the media’s inordinate coverage of the subject have masked a more important conversation about the real plight of African Americans.
“If you look at the rates of poverty [among African Americans] in America they have not changed very much since the year Dr. Martin Luther King was killed, and in fact they’re a little bit higher now — about 12 per cent then, about 14 per cent now,” he said. Mr. Blow also pointed to the resegregation of the American classroom as an indication that race relations were deteriorating in America, even in the age of Obama.
“What you see is a real flashback to the sixties without the vehicle to move out of it and that scares me to death,” he said. “President Obama’s ascension, through no fault of his own, has hurt that effort.”
Antiracism activist Tim Wise said the combination of newfound unemployment numbers among whites long familiar to people of color, a popular culture that embraced diversity and a demographic shift spurred by immigration, marked a perfect storm of white anxiety.
“I’ve been white a long time, it will be 43 years in October,” he said. “I’ve been white long enough to know that when white folks older than me say they want their country back that scares the hell out of me. I know what their country was and so do they.”
Mr. Wise called on his fellow white folks to do more than attend symposiums on race at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center.
“We come to events like this, we watch the clips, we talk about racial injustice and for many of us that’s how we sort of get our liberal on. We cluck our tongues and say, ‘Isn’t it awful what they did to that four-year-old in that clip?’” he said. Mr. Wise called such behavior voyeuristic and ultimately hollow, and instead asked the white members of the audience to acknowledge their advantages, recalling an episode in his own life when a police officer in New Orleans helped him break into his car without his having to provide any proof that the car was indeed his.
“We’re not being honest about our racialized experience,” he said. “It goes with what Gwen is saying when she says white folks don’t think they have a race, they’re just normal.”
Ms. Ifill concluded the panel discussion with a hopeful message, imploring the audience to venture into the murky waters of mutual misunderstanding between the races.
“When I traveled the country after Obama was elected I found the most interesting response from audiences,” she said. “They’d start by saying either, ‘I’m white but . . .’, or ‘I’m not a racist but,’ — which is always a fun beginning to a conversation.”
The audience laughed.
“But I also found that people were hungry to talk about race, and hungry to talk about it in a way that they weren’t being judged immediately. Maybe because they felt they knew me because I had been in their living rooms, they felt like they could safely say the most incredibly crazy, offensive things. . . but that I wouldn’t mock them, that I would listen to them, because my job is to listen and hear what people are actually saying, not what I wish they would say. Because that tells me about what is hopeful about our country or what rot is eating our society. If I don’t listen to it I come away less informed. If I walk into a room thinking I know what you think already, or I know who you are already, I’m not going to learn anything more. What I found was that people were anxious to say things like, ‘If all your people were like you . . .’ Well, I let them finish the sentence. I didn’t let Shirley Sherrod finish the sentence. I would let them finish the sentence and find out where they were coming from and where they wanted to go until we almost always ended up in a better place.”