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The Fire This Time
Racism’s Overeager Eulogists

At the end of his autobiography of life as a slave, Frederick Douglass warns of the kind of founding duplicities in American life that he sees enduring beyond his emancipation: “The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time.” Bigger Thomas, the anti-hero of Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” is so submerged in “that ocean of boiling hate” for a society that “made him conscious of every square inch of skin on his black body” that killing the young, rich, white daughter of his employer evolves from an accident into his first expression of freedom: an emancipating murder that turns the table on his skin’s captivity.

James Baldwin—the young Baldwin of the 1960s who railed at America’s failed promise of social justice—demolished “Native Son.” He despised the monstrosity of Bigger for making black life seem “as debased and impoverished as our theology claims,” which presumes that the only way out is to be more white. Baldwin wanted more blackness. Racial pride and solidarity, from Spike Lee’s “X” to what Shelby Steele snidely called “the age of white guilt,” peaked in the 1990s, before the 2001 terrorist attacks made Arabs and immigrants the culture’s default whipping bits.

 

Then there was this exchange on CNN on election night as it was becoming apparent that Barack Obama would win the presidency. “Does anyone know,” Anderson Cooper asked his panel of a dozen analysts and partisans, “what this means in terms of change of racial relations in the United States or a perception of it?” Bill Bennett, the born-again reactionary (he was once a Democrat), immediately jumped in: “Well, I’ll tell you one thing it means, as a former secretary of education. You don’t take any excuses anymore from anybody who says the deck is stacked, I can’t do anything. . . .”

So that’s it? Throw out your Douglass, your Wright, your Baldwin and the rest of them and consider the battle won? Thankfully, David Gergen, CNN’s cool-headed oracle, tempered Bennett’s clanking of fiestas: “We need a little more information now about how the white vote breaks out before we, you know, break out the champagne on this question,” Gergen said. As it turned out, a majority of whites (57 percent) did not vote for Obama. But Bennett had been waiting to exhale his brackish epiphany for a while. The finality of his judgment, even before the evening’s numbers were tallied, spoke of an eagerness for the kind of consolation verdict that might appeal to those blanching at the results: Race is no longer an issue when even a black citizen can grow up to be president, so don’t bother us with it anymore.

The verdict is preposterous, given the numbers. The reasoning even more so. Assume that 57 percent of whites, or even 77 percent, had voted Obama. Race would still not unbecome its problematic self, especially when 95 percent of black voters, some surely reveling in the entirely justifiable joys of payback, opted for Obama. It’s not about math. It’s about prevailing attitudes. Racism, an invention of majorities that plows its mirror image in the minorities it lords over, may be considered on its way to bankruptcy when the notion of minorities becomes irrelevant—when there are no such conceits as majorities and minorities anymore. That day is a long way off.

That’s not to diminish the triumph of opportunity in Obama’s election. But that’s why there’s probably never been a better time to engage matters of race as a national discussion and examine how high those decks are stacked—not just against blacks, but wherever equal opportunity is more slogan than reality. It’s also why Douglass, Wright, Baldwin, Toni Morrison and all other great voices of black literature are more relevant than ever—not because they’re black, but because they should have always been read as writers of the American experience (if not the universal human experience), not as writers of the ironically segregated “black experience.” Maybe now they will, and by some of the very people who held their noses and voted for Obama, if Bennett’s argument doesn’t seduce them first. It should rather shame them.

Imagine if CNN were covering the creation of Israel in 1948 and Anderson Cooper’s preening preview asked what this meant for anti-Semitism. Would Bennett have been so eager to suggest that Jews could pack up their fears and Holocaust histories and move on among the families of nations? Bennett would have been 5 at the time, so stupidity of the sort would have been excusable. But on election night he was 65, old enough to have lived through America’s harrowing 1960s. Conservatives have been hoping to disown that decade since. This is the time to welcome it home as American history’s native son.

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