The black students cited instances of relative privilege, things that were more structural, institutional, atmospheric. “The campus police are always stopping us”; “I get followed around in stores”; “Most of the white students don’t have to think twice about how much it costs to take prep classes for the LSAT or to spend spring break skiing in Aspen or partying in Cancún.”
It’s a familiar, even ubiquitous, miscommunication over the last ten years of the so-called culture wars: A black person speaks of racism or white privilege. The nearest halfway-privileged white person protests, “But I work for liberal causes. You’re lumping me with racists just because I’m white!”
The black person answers, “I’m not saying that you, personally, are a racist. I’m saying we live in a world where it’s easier to be white than it is to be black.”
“But I’m not part of that,” comes the reply.
“We’re all part of it,” insists the black person.
The tendency to turn the commitment to racial liberalism into sheer denial is strong. “I don’t see race” becomes “I don’t see racism.” But while some of us are listening to the soothing tones of National Public Radio, a much larger audience—and larger by millions—is listening to Rush Limbaugh singing those subterranean fears of “Barack, the magic Negro,” or to radio shock jocks cackling about “jigaboos,” or to Pat Buchanan fretting that Obama is a radical, unpatriotic, extremist “elitist” to whom the liberal media hands a pass as a “special-ed,” “affirmative-action” candidate. Not that any of them mean it in a racist way. Hey, lighten up. Don’t you have a sense of humor?
Then there are the real-life, on-the-ground, disastrous statistical disparities that burden the lived experience of the majority of blacks, people of color, and the poor in this country: from the still-unrepaired wake of Hurricane Katrina, to the greater infant-mortality rate and lesser life span, to near double-digit rates of unemployment, to cuny professor Harry Levine’s study of stop-and-frisk statistics in New York City (blacks are eight times more likely than whites to be stopped for marijuana possession, for instance), to disproportionately high national rates of foreclosures and homelessness among blacks, Native Americans, and Latinos, to the almost complete resegregation of schools across the land, to a war on drugs so shockingly racialized and so aggressively executed that our rates of incarceration place us first in the world.
There is an interesting kind of cognitive dissonance at work in the American psyche. We rejoice in the warm symbolism of interracial bliss, particularly in the idealized and thoroughly mythic sphere of celebrity existence: Tiger Woods’s Pan-racialism, Brangelina’s adoptions, Steven Spielberg’s handsome brown son. We tell ourselves we love the idea of diasporic enfoldment: bi-, tri-, and multiracial Kids ’R’ Us. At the same time, there’s terrible ambivalence on the ground. Does one really want “the race card” living next door, or being your boss? Do you really want your child marrying outside his race? I’ve had conversations with white friends who are rattled when a black classmate has bested their child in class rank but still can’t let go of the feeling that the mere presence of blacks in the school must be bringing down the test scores.
Similarly, it’s interesting to review the evolution of media commentary, from TV to the blogosphere, trying to fit the thoroughly unfamiliar Obama into familiar boxes. For a while, he was depicted as not having any “racial baggage.” Then, in the blink of an eye, he was transformed into Exactly the Same Person As the Reverend Wright—who then could be demonized with all the well-practiced repertoire of insults reserved for Louis Farrakhan and armed revolutionaries.
Obama’s comeback, his eloquent speech about race, showed that he wasn’t exactly the same person, not by any means. So in yet another twist, he is now so uppity he needs bringing down, defamed as too famous, categorized as uncategorizable, displaced as unplaceable. Since, in actuality, more is on the record about every step of Obama’s life than possibly any candidate on the planet, this particular brand of demonization has been accomplished by the insinuations of erasure: If you took away his “pretty words,” he’d be nothing. If you took away his race, he’d be nothing. If only he didn’t have a brain, he’d be nothing, nothing, nothing. It’s a circular, nonsensical mantra—magical thinking, wrapped in the fiction of “but really, I never see race.” This kind of denial masquerading as color-blind idealism cannot be our compass at this exciting and potentially transformative moment.