In the standard telling of American racial history, the heroes, villains, and victims of such stories tend to be unambiguous. In keeping with our present reality, Clybourne Park departs from that pattern by going after white liberals and black characters, too. Indeed, Norris has been taken for a conservative by some because he sometimes portrays well-intentioned whites as sanctimonious and patronizing hypocrites. In truth, he’s just an equal-opportunity misanthrope. There is hardly anyone in either act of the play—fifteen characters in all—who is sympathetic, not even the ghostly Korean War veteran who had the good sense to commit suicide before the curtain goes up on Act I. Norris’s collection of Americans would be right at home on any cable channel whenever a racial story, even an anecdote as relatively small bore as a testy conflict between a black Harvard professor and a white cop, rises to the level of 24/7 infotainment.
Norris violates another fundamental maxim of mainstream narratives of American racial history written by whites as well—that they should be uplifting parables with a clear-cut message and, at the end, a glimmer of racial justice yet to come, God be willing. Clybourne Park could not be further removed in sensibility from, say, To Kill a Mockingbird (whose 50th anniversary was celebrated in 2010 just as Shirley Sherrod was being pilloried). His play doesn’t culminate in a stirring courtroom scene but with the protracted telling of a joke about a “big black man” raping a “little white guy” in a jail cell. Norris’s mission is to prod those of us who have tended to be starry-eyed about Obama’s breakthrough into conducting a reality check. He reminds us that America has a long way to go before it gets anywhere near its promised nirvana of racial reconciliation, if it ever does. He tells us that unreconstructed white racists, of whom there are still a significant number in America, are not the whole problem. His lunatic humor may not be built for the ages, but it surely encapsulates the lunatic racial atmosphere of the Obama years to date.
There has been change on the American playing field of race since Inauguration Day 2009—not so much for the better or the worse, but a shift into a kind of twilight zone where the nation’s racial conversation has moved from its usual gears of intractability, obfuscation, angry debate, and platitudinous sentimentality to the truly unhinged. It’s as if everyone can now say, well, that’s that, we’ve elected our first African-American president, we can pat ourselves on the back for doing so, and, with that noble and historic accomplishment in the bank, we will sign on to sideshows ranging from a Herman Cain stunt presidential run to a malicious jihad mounted by a right-wing hit man in Los Angeles, Andrew Breitbart, to destroy Sherrod, an obscure federal worker in Georgia. You’d think Obama’s victory gave the entire country permission to act out like the racial brawlers of Clybourne Park.
It has certainly encouraged the GOP to unleash its id and wax with unapologetic nostalgia about the good ole days of the Jim Crow South. Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia issued a proclamation declaring Confederate History Month with no mention of slavery. Rand Paul, when running successfully for senator of Kentucky, disparaged the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Haley Barbour, the former GOP chairman and Mississippi governor and almost presidential candidate, reminisced about how things were not “that bad” back when the segregationist White Citizens’ Councils were in charge of Yazoo City during his halcyon youth. Toss in such other uninhibited party leaders as Newt Gingrich, branding Obama “the best food-stamp president in American history,” and Karl Rove, who labeled the public-spirited rapper Common “a thug” when Obama invited him to a poetry evening at the White House, and you see why some white voters in Steubenville, Ohio, were happy to confide to a Times reporter this month that they wouldn’t be casting ballots for a black man.
But this renaissance of neo-Confederatism on the right is retro. We’ve been there, done that many times in the decades since Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” turned the party of Lincoln into a haven for the old Dixiecrats. What’s new in the Obama era are the less binary racial free-for-alls dramatized so vividly in Clybourne Park. Though some of these episodes have comic elements that seem like holdovers from The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s eighties satirical assault on liberal political correctness, they have become wackier in plot and boast a wider cast of characters: white conservatives and liberals, black conservatives and liberals, and a political-media Establishment that is more easily manipulated by racial provocateurs than at any time in recent memory.