If we resided in a post-racial society, then William Faulknerâ€™s words uttered in the 20th century would not ring true in this century: â€œThe past isnâ€™t dead and buried. In fact, it isnâ€™t even past.â€
With the election of Barack Obama as this nationâ€™s first African-American president, many of us had hope that we could finally close the door on Americaâ€™s original sin â€” slavery.
But the vestiges of that institution linger not only in the backwaters of America, but alsoÂ in the hallowed halls of Congress.
When South Carolina Republican House Rep. Joe Wilsonâ€™s belted out â€œYou lie!â€ during Obamaâ€™s televised joint session of Congress address, Wilson jolted us back to Faulknerâ€™s words.
If Wilsonâ€™s act of incivility were merely about Joe the man, and not about a nation still haunted by and grappling with its shameful and unexamined legacy of racism, then the fodder and fuss that followed would not have ensued.
As a matter of fact, we could have viewed Joeâ€™s outburst as all about him, an impassioned man in opposition to Obamaâ€™s current political discussions. After all, I too find Obamaâ€™s healthcare plan and government spending a brow raiser.
But when you see an onslaught of racist images of Obama by those in opposition to him â€” placards that read â€œAfro-Communist,â€ â€œObama ribs â€˜n chickenâ€¦plus a nice slice of watermelon for the darkie,â€ and now the recent poster, flooding the Internet, showing Obama wearing a feather headdress and a bone through his nose as a witch doctor â€” there is unquestionably something deeper going on than mere opposition to his policies.
And when you have a Birther Movement promulgating lies that Obama wasnâ€™t born in the U.S., Tea Party protests with guns at its rallies, and a vicious right-wing contingent blocking the President of the United States from delivering an innocuous back-to-school speech encouraging Americaâ€™s children to stay in school, we are seeing strong efforts at play to delegitimize Obamaâ€™s authority.
And of course the specter of race surfaces. You must ask, how much does race play a key factor and not a backdrop to Obamaâ€™s policy decisions?
And, like any unresolved conflict, the warts and boils bubble up, unseeingly, out of nowhere.
â€œRacism â€¦ still exists and I think it has bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many White people, not just in the South but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. Itâ€™s an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply,â€ former President Jimmy Carter told NBC News.
Whereas Carter thinks race is indeed the underlying issue, Obama professes to think otherwise.
â€œNow there are some who are, setting aside the issue of race, actually I think are more passionate about the idea of whether government can do anything right,â€ he told ABC News. â€œAnd I think that thatâ€™s probably the biggest driver of some of the vitriol.â€
But Obamaâ€™s Attorney General Eric Holder might perceive Obamaâ€™s rejoinder as cowardice.
In February Holder received scathing criticism for his speech on race. Heâ€™s critics said the tone and tenor of the speech were confrontational and accusatory.
â€œThough this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot,â€ Holder said, â€œin things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.â€
Obama is part of a new generation of African-American male leaders who come after the 60s. They would argue that they donâ€™t flee from race issues, but rather they donâ€™t employ the black civil rights movement paradigm, often viewed as confrontational, to enter into mainstream politics. And they are heralded as Americanâ€™s post-racial leaders who successfully navigate through this countryâ€™s lingering legacy of racism with the intent purpose of disarming whites of their guilt and fears.
Peter Boyerâ€™s article in the February 4, 2008, issue of The New Yorker titled â€œThe Color of Politics: A Mayor of the Post-Racial Generationâ€ explained this â€œpost-racialâ€ generation of African Americans that includes Barack Obama, Harold Ford, Cory Booker, and my governor, Deval Patrick:
Their deeper kinship resides in their identities as breakthrough figures â€“ Africa American politicians whose appeal transcends race. Men reared in the post-Selma era and schooled at elite institutions, developed a political style of conciliation rather than confrontation, which complemented their natural gifts and, as it happens, nicely served their ambitions.
This political style these men employ Shelby Steele depicts it best in his recent book A Bound Man, Shelby Steele depicts the political style these men employ by showing that in the African American community, there are two types of people â€“ the â€œbargainerâ€ and the â€œchallenger.â€
What is a â€œbargainerâ€ or a â€œchallenger?â€
According to Steele, a bargainer strikes a bargain with white America in which they say I will not rub Americaâ€™s ugly history of racism in our face if you will not hold my race against me.
A â€œchallenger,â€ on the other hand, does the opposite of a â€œbargainer.â€ A â€œchallengerâ€ charges white people with inherent racism and then demands they prove themselves innocent by supporting black-friendly polices like affirmative action and diversity.
No matter what kind of shape-shifters or mask-wearers we are as African Americans leaders, even our post-racial leaders are finding out that the nagging issue of race is an unavoidable one.
And our attempts to dodge the issue of race in American public discourse is itself a racial act. And the reason race bubbles up to the surface, unseeingly out of nowhere, is because it is the conversation America wonâ€™t have.