On the night of November 4, 2008, there was a wave of celebration regarding the election of the first African-American President of the United States. For many, it was a dream out of a 1998 science fiction film that had come true. However, the narrative that the election of Barack Obama was the long-awaited great hope for the future of race relations in a country that has yet to fully acknowledge its problematic history on the subject in exacting detail was a red herring. It wasn’t long into his Presidency that Barack Obama was wading into a confrontation between private citizen Henry Louis Gates Jr., an accomplished black academic, and a police officer. This confrontation widened into the public discourse, dividing people almost along the typical tribal lines. It was not a situation of momentary headlines. Instead, it has become a blueprint for sociopolitical discussion, fraught with futility that builds into a collapsing tower.
The death of Trayvon Martin sparked the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement alongside other social efforts that sought criminal justice reform and a new, more community-based approach to policing in African-American communities. In hindsight, such a social movement should have likely expected media-driven characterizations of it and politically partisan re-framing. After all, Martin Luther King Jr. was considered a terrorist threat by the political establishment, the media and significant portions of the country as was any activist who dared to question the racial status quo. King as well as others were blamed by police, politicians and media figures as being responsible for racial disharmony, protests, riots and killings. However, like unaware moths flying directly to the flame of past as prologue, the movement made a series of missteps that have reduced any chance it had at leading any discussion, debate or social change to a positive, meaningful end.
The movement never set the boundaries of itself in the sand, which allowed anyone with a Twitter account to claim membership or affiliation with a simple hashtag. It aligned itself with leftist political organizations through financial funding, ultimately pushing it further into the abyss of the culture war and the deluge of online conspiracy theory championed by Breitbart and other far-right organizations. It also had indiscriminate reactions to any instance of killing without considering the full context of each situation equally, and coming to calm conclusions one way or the other. The Dallas and Baton Rouge shootings that led to the killing of multiple police officers changed the narrative completely to the point of no recovery. Social activists spent one word and one minute too long attempting to explain that riots were the symptom of hopelessness to individuals completely disinterested in reasons, symptoms or solutions that required them to do anything different from their modus operandi. In general, African-Americans with hardline views on race further alienate themselves as they resort to using terms like “cooning” to describe any African-American who disagrees with them in their angry scourge against the “evil albinoid,” which follows the liberal trend of demanding 100% agreement on any topic under threat of expulsion and the fascistic social out-casting with a labeling brand of traitorous “otherness.” Making matters worse is statements like that of Symone D. Sanders’ decree that the Democratic National Committee doesn’t need any white people running it. Is such a statement a good way to start a conversation on race, or just another way to engage in a pointless argument in which the other side has more than enough of Sanders’ rhetoric to walk away, feeling justified in doing nothing while selling the narrative that whites are the new victims of racism?
As the barrage of deaths of young African-American men by police and the puzzling, accompanied acquittals or hung-juries have followed, every forum from social media to nightly news panels have descended into a crescendo of arguments on shootings, trials, statistics, criminal justice, race and racism. When the Academy Awards don’t have enough people of color (meaning black), the debate ensues. When the terms “white supremacy” and “white privilege” are thrown around, the debate ensues. When the President speaks on race, the debate ensues. When Bill Clinton is interrupted by protesters leading to a major clash, the debate ensues. When Donald Trump tries to “court” African-American voters, the debate ensues. These debates typically begin with the precipitating news story only to descend into larger issues and finally devolve into shouting matches in which the wittiest person or the person with most backup support wins. These often-circular arguments achieve nothing beyond emboldening the opposing positions of the two groups. The only conclusion these debates solidify is that many white Americans do not fully understand or share the same experiences/perspective of African-Americans. It also informs us that many white Americans simply don’t care. Others merely see racism as a figment of our imaginations that was eradicated 50-years-ago.
The hypothesis here isn’t that 100% of white people are inherent racists with some hateful agenda to oppress African-Americans. If it were, the solutions would be consequentially a lot simpler. Either there would be no solution at all or the number of solutions would be limited in numeric range but vastly wide in target. Realistically, the picture is considerably more complex. Instead, a great deal of the problem is a combination of willful ignorance and simple ignorance of experience, all manipulated by those with actual wealth and power. Willful ignorance is harder to combat yet still, it is personified by poor, powerless whites seeking refuge in the cloak of their ignorant view that while they may have nothing, they can at least take solace in not being black. The election of Barack Obama was an affront to that idea as it confirmed that reality that African-Americans can strive and achieve in society. Although this is known to many African-Americans with family members who are accomplished, Barack Obama’s presence is etched into the fabric of American history as a constant reminder that the false dogma of “white supremacy” does not truly apply to poor, middle-class or even rich whites. It only applies to the wealthy captains of industry, who are supreme only by opportunity and not by substantive merit. If ignorance is bliss, Barack Obama to a segment of America is hell.
Those ignorant of experience are those who live and work in environments lacking diversity, giving them only the impression that is canonized by the media and their peers. That impression worsens with the toxic discourse of identity politics, which is not one-sidedly liberal. Conservatives benefit in large part to identity politics as their opposition to certain aspects of policy championed by a large portion of ethnic minorities maintains their dominance among their change-resistant voting base. Lyndon B. Johnson served the Republican Party to the South on a platter by embracing policies the Southern voting base in America staunchly opposed. With Democrats building a “rainbow coalition,” the Republicans built a “snow coalition” with small pockets of minorities who had the uncomfortable task of being conservatives while trying to minimize the reality that a too-significant portion of their voting base was not too fond of them (i.e.: The Log Cabin Republicans).
However, in the trenches of identity politics, the left fights in a particularly unappealing manner. If a white person cites a statistic showing that African-Americans are more likely to commit a crime than white Americans, most on the left including black groups are quick to topple the speaker into oblivion when the more apt initial response is to ascertain the speaker’s motivations in citing that statistic. Before sticking the knife in, no one asks, “Why do you think that is? What sociopolitical factors contribute to this? How do you think we can reduce the occurrences of this?” Instead, the reaction is one of immediate dismissal and branding, rendering the talking point that “liberals value facts” an unfounded quip of uppity liberal thinkers.
Still, the toxic engagement of dialogue isn’t the fault of African-Americans. The basis on which African-American discuss race is a foundation built on centuries of oppressive institutions forged by men of yesteryear and perpetuated by powerful men just like them. The larger problem is very few on any side wish to talk honestly about race in America. No one wishes to concede anything to the other side or truly weigh in what policies work or don’t work, and why this is the case. Given there is a lack of honesty on these issues, the constant cry of “we need to have a national discussion about race” is incorrect. It is pointless to discuss racism in a society that refuses to be honest about it. If you come to the table to speak with people that have an opposing view point, once they arrive with obvious fervent militancy chipped on their shoulders, finding the exit is the more meaningful pursuit in life. The point of meaningful societal discussion is to express honest feelings, exchange ideas that weigh in fact-based information, find a common core of values, and to come to a consensus in which everyone benefits equally without anger and prejudice toward each other. If this is not the attitude in which we are all coming to the table, it would be better to skip the meeting.
Given it is beyond the United States in this political environment (and quite possibly any political environment) to deal with racism, African-Americans have only one truth to embrace: we are on our own. It is up to us to fix the problems we see starting with the guiding principle of self-sufficiency. This self-sufficiency is not one hostile to white Americans or any other group, but one devoted to attending to our issues with an internal discussion that weighs in our own experience and perspective because it is an experience and perspective that we obviously are the only ones that care about. Those experiences and perspective must be discussed with honesty and with each other as brothers and sisters, not at each other as teacher to student. It is to be expected that such efforts will be attacked as any efforts to improve the social conditions of African-Americans have been attacked. However, it is a more meaningful pursuit to fight against outside efforts to weaken our attempts to improve our own social conditions from our family lives to our economic outlook than it is to spend all our time engaging in circular arguments with individuals who don’t know, are too slow and who don’t even care. If we want to discuss race in America, start with the people who truly care about it enough to tell the truth.