When you go to an amusement park, you generally don’t expect to have a moment more meaningful than figuring out how many times a roller coaster runs in an hour. Yesterday, I was at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. Having finished a thoroughly underwhelming meal, I was waiting outside of the restaurant. A bench with four young black men, all in their late teens and early twenties, was sitting on a bench nearby. The word “nigger” tuned me into their conversation.
One of them, tall, lanky and light-skinned, was describing what it felt like when a teacher called him “nigger”. He was angry, of course, but he kept describing his frustration and embarrassment, which, more than anything else, defined his reaction. He didn’t know what to do – if he got angry, he would get in trouble or get arrested. If he walked out, he’d get suspended. If he said something back, he’d be the one causing trouble.
Another man in the group talked about how it felt the same even when insulted in that way by someone who wasn’t an authority figure. The consensus dovetailed with something I’ve seen throughout my life whenever someone’s done something racist to me: a feeling of powerlessness and frustration, coupled with the knowledge that anything you do could potentially feed into that same racist narrative that let your assailant feel justified in being racist to begin with. The second you’re shoved into a box of racial stereotypes, you become trapped.
Somehow, when conversations like this happen, when a young black man is called “nigger” by a teacher or when he doesn’t receive a callback because his name is Delonte or, as I also saw this weekend, a white woman sees a pitcher in a black family’s apartment and says, “That’s where he drank his Kool-Aid!”, it is never ever asked, “What happened to Barack Obama’s post-racial America?”
Yet when a black person says things like these are racist, or even just stupid, he is accused of undermining “post-racialism”. You’re a racial “grievance monger”. And this all comes from a belief – erroneous – that Obama “promised” a post-racial society/presidency.
Obama had the “promise” of a post-racial candidate. His “post-racial presidency” allegedly irked some black people, despite none of those people saying or referencing “post-racial”. Where it is admitted that “post-racial” was a phrase applied to Obama’s candidacy rather than generated through it, that idea was forgotten as soon as it provided a new narrative for Obama’s failures. “Post-racial” was a catchall for the same litany of Things Black People Should Stop Doing, which include alleging racism, being victims of racism and thinking about ways in which people could be racist.
Post-racialism is already supposed to be on at least version 2.0. Of course, whatever version we’re on, the only thing post-racialism is supposed to prevent is white people being called racist. Obama is judged for ever thinking about race, his unspoken promise of post-racialism dashed by the fact that he dared be corrupted by the very thing he was supposed to be dedicated to ending. Which, as we’ve discussed, is pretty much whatever thing you don’t like about the racial discourse in America.
Obama’s alleged post-racialism came from a single line at his masterful 2004 Democratic Convention speech: “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” This assertion, that we live in an America which is an intermingling of races, is powerfully phrased and evocative of the greatness of the civil rights movement, but at no point did Obama ever say that race didn’t matter anymore, or that the way to deliver on this promise was to artificially declare an end to racism as of August 2004. The thing keeping racism alive isn’t the contention that racism exists.
“Post-racial” is the new “nigger”, though more polite. It is a phrase that demeans and dismisses the concerns of minorities by turning their entire existence into nothing more than a dedication to working towards making white people comfortable. When President Obama says that it was stupid for a police officer who arrested a black man who was angry over being accused of breaking into his own home, the narrative became about how he was making a mistake, how his bluntness on an issue of race – the seeming promise of post-racialism – was a “betrayal” of it, because the only point of white people being nice enough to elect Obama was for that nigger to march in post-racial lock step.
We live in a country where your health and even life are still at risk if you go to the doctor and you’re the wrong color. Yet nobody will ever ask these doctors why they haven’t delivered on the promise of post-racialism, because the idea is not about equality or dignity, but instead about those young black men taking that frustration and anger and helplessness and assuming that they’ll stop feeling that way once they stop thinking about race. Shelby Steele might have a job for you one day, if you play your cards right.