Monday, November 24, 2008
What to do in the Age of Obama? A Letter to a Young Race Man, A Letter to a Young Race Woman
"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."
Never, has a phrase been so appropriate.
According to the Associated Press and the Southern Poverty Law Center, with Barack Obama's ascendancy to the White House there has come an inevitable and predictable backlash of racial hostility.
The sentiment against Barack Obama's victory--the fear, angst, and hate--points to the permanency of racism in this country. These deep rooted and familiar sentiments are what some have called "the changing same" of American history and culture. While social and political circumstances may be radically altered, these constructs remain veritable bogeymen. They are heavy, dark shadows that cloud our society’s present vision and future possibilities. Ironically, we reference progress and change against these forces, while they simultaneously hang heavy over our efforts to move forward.
I struggle to find the words to explain this moment, or to give advice as I think about Obama's victory and its repercussions for our society. To use a metaphor, race and racism are sound, strong, and lasting houses that remain fixed as reference points which structure the lived realities of race in America. Some will shiver at this statement, but I have always (and will) continue to say that race, as both a reality and fiction, is perpetuated as much because it has meaning for White Americans, as for how it offers a deep and striking familiarity and comfort for people of color.
I also suggest that in the moment of Barack Obama's presidency, we as young race men and young race women must broaden the lens that we use to critically engage the world. For better or for worse, we cannot exclusively appeal to a logic of exclusion: the fact that a Black man is now president will defuse explanations that seek to make sense of the limitations on our collective life chances by appealing to White racism. Sorry, those arguments will likely not work in the post-Obama moment. Notice, I did not say that White racism would no longer continue to affect our post November 4, 2008 world. Such a claim would be silly, asinine, thin, trite, and untrue. However, if the Black freedom struggle is a war, a battle, an encounter of position, we must acknowledge the shift in the battlefield that has occurred under our feet.
Young race men and young race women, as you grow intellectually, and as we all shift and broaden our awareness of what exactly this post-racial world means for us collectively, we must move beyond the given that Black Americans have a set of clear and obvious justice claims on American society generally, and on white Americans, in particular. We must ask ourselves, how do we respond to the "go to," in sports terms, the play of necessity, i.e. the hail Mary, or the rush down the middle when we are 4th and 1 on the goal line? In keeping with sports as a metaphor, in this moment a permanent claim to outsider status may not work, resonate, or score the points that we need to secure a win.
Ask yourself, how can Black Americans say that we are excluded from full citizenship when someone, a man who shares the color of our skin is president of these United States of America? Do not run from this question. Instead, run towards it because in working through an answer you will gain strength and clarity of mind and purpose.
You see, we young race men and young race women, those of us who reflect deeply on these questions, will always matter. Yes, this is a bold statement. Nevertheless, I argue, and am confident in the fact, that we will always be relevant. We are the conscience of those who suffer under the injustices of societies that are structured around racial inequality and racial dominance. We tell the truth when others do not want to hear it. We will always have a special burden to speak truth to power. We, those young race men and young race women who are true to the creed, will always bear the burden of this choice. The language and reference points that speak to our shared realities (in this moment, are they really in fact shared?) may have changed around us with Barack Obama's victory. However, we have a gifted insight. We have struggled towards a certain and particular awareness. This forward progress in our freedom struggle stands on the shoulders of our ancestors. We have little choice but to draw on them for strength.
Please, and do not for a moment, think that your insight does not still have purchase in this new world. The best of us are always a step ahead. Our role, in the face of the inevitable bigotry and hatred that Barack Obama will face, is to meet, and to neutralize, this hostility. We as young race men and young race women will not always be able to defuse this irrational anger and distrust. As history demonstrates, we will often be met by deaf ears. However, history also tells us that the grand narrative, the force of history—as made real by Barack Obama’s victory—is on our side. Our role is to intervene when America loses her way:
We are the miner's canary.
We have an obligation to shock American back to her senses when she loses her way, contrives unreasonable expectations, and places her first Black president in untenable situations.
We, you young race men and young race women, have never been more relevant. We have worked in the service of all peoples in these United States as a force for collective progress. Young race men and young race men, we must embrace this past, present, and future, as we move towards a “post-racial” America. To anticipate your objection: Yes, I would be lying if I stated that I believe that things are certain in this moment, or that our future is clear:
To us, the world made sense in a different way prior to November 4th. Now, the world still makes sense, just differently.
We must pursue this truth however problematic or difficult it may be. For young race men and young race women, this "new" America is our undiscovered country. The rules have changed, but the problem remains the same. The answer may have changed, but the question remains the same. Ultimately, we, you, and us, are in a unique position to solve the riddle offered by a post-racial present and future.