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Talking About Not Talking About Race

Why even the most well-meaning whites and blacks can’t hear each other.


On a short flight to New York recently, I was sitting behind two white, well-dressed twentysomethings chattering loudly and uninhibitedly about going to clubs and travel plans and the possibility of living in New Jersey. Then came the question: “So who are you voting for?”

“I was for Hillary, but now … I’m kind of undecided,” volunteered the first woman.

“Are you a Democrat?” asked the second.

“Yeah. But I think I might go with McCain. It’s just that, well, I don’t know. You know.” Her voice dropped. I leaned forward to hear better. “You kind of hate to say it aloud, but … ” Here her voice dropped again, to a murmur lost in the roar of the jet engines, and I missed whatever came next.

Let’s start with this concession: I have no idea what that young woman actually said. In a perfect world, I suppose that would be the end of the story and I would go back to minding my own business. In the context of contemporary political discourse, however, it did cross my mind that if this conversation were presented on one of those “finish the sentence” cultural-literacy tests, then pretty much every American, of whatever creed, color, or class, would have exactly the same guess as to how the woman completed her thought.

I think there’s some consensus, in other words, about the one thing in America we really “hate to say” aloud. Yet by refraining from saying audibly that-which-must-not-be-spoken, was the young woman’s political choice rendered rational, neutral, pure? Conversely, if I were to spell it out here, would I be the one accused of “playing the race card”?

This is a complicated monkey wrench in our supposedly post-race society. On the one hand, everyone knows that race matters to a greater or lesser degree; on the other, few of us want to admit it. Indeed, race is the one topic that’s probably even more taboo in polite company than sex. Yet in the absence of fact or frank conversation, grown people get buried in the kind of whispered fear, fantasy, and ignorant mistake that a 5-year-old makes when explaining how icky it was when Daddy got Mommy pregnant using the garden hose and a large bowl of avocados. Is this misinformation really so different from when Fox News and Karl Rove fill in the blanks of those awkward silences with images of the perpetually pantyless Paris Hilton rocking the foundations of our civilization on the same stage as Barack Hussein Osama, oops, I mean Obama. This is racial pornography that exploits the barely suppressed caverns of imagined horrors that have haunted us since D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

Obama predicted this phenomenon and attempted to expose it to the anodyne of common sense: “They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. ‘He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?’ ” The not-altogether-surprising backlash from McCain’s campaign is a deflection, an expression of deep discomfort. The reflexive accusation that Obama was playing the race card has a certain resemblance to the juvenile retort one gets when the science teacher tries to explain the human reproductive system: “Ooooh! He said a dirty word!” In this way, the opportunity for thoughtful public analysis sinks, once again, below the sound of the audible. Yet the fear of race rolls on, pantomimed in palpably influential and consequential ways.

At the same time, the civil-rights movement has given us a moral conscience that was not as prevalent when The Birth of a Nation was made. Today, it’s fair to say that the overwhelming majority of white Americans “hate to say it aloud” because they also hate to think of themselves as racists. But blacks and whites tend to differ in their very definition of racism. Some years ago, researchers conducting a study for the Diversity Project, at UC Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Social Change, asked black and white college students about their perceptions of racism on a given campus. White students tended to say there was none, but blacks and Native Americans said it was everywhere. In fact, the study documented an interesting phenomenon: As Diversity Project sociologist Troy Duster put it, “White students see diversity as a potential source of ‘individual enhancement,’ ” while African-American students were more likely to see the goal as “institutional change.”

When the white students were asked to give illustrations that substantiated their positions, they spoke of their own experiences and of personal intentions. “Last night, I had dinner with a black friend,” they might offer. Or, “I have a black roommate, and we get along”; “I play basketball with a couple of black guys”; “I’ve never used a racist epithet”; “I treat everyone the same.”


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