There is no such thing in America as race transcendence, and Obama’s going to find that out real soon…There’s no such thing as ‘post-racial’ in America, because if you push the envelope too far, you’re going to hear about it.”
Tavis Smiley in an July 21 Associated Press story.
I’m amused by Smiley’s quote because it says everything, yet nothing at all. Statements like this are “controversial” mostly because everyone knows that the person talking is dancing around the real issue.
This dream of post-racial America is about two things: 1) assimilation and 2) alleviating white guilt and boredom with talking about racism.
This is why White folks, liberals in particular, get up in arms about how successfully the Clinton campaign blackened Obama up. They aren’t necessarily upset about the racism, they are upset that they couldn’t sneak Obama’s blackness past those who still don’t like blackness (we call them “racists”, shock of shocks). This is an important distinction when talking about race and White liberals.
(If you don’t believe me, read this piece over at The Root.com, which nicely proves the point I’m making by conceding that being called a racist is worse than being a racist, mostly because people say it too much. Sad.)
Because when we talk about race transcendence in America we are usually talking about transcending the Black race. No one talks about transcending whiteness. No no. Because then you’d have to acknowledge that whiteness not only exists but has unique features and power. You’d be admitting then, if you are white, that you have it.
And you ain’t gonna do that.
Because blackness is such a drag. For White folks. They are tired of talking about it and they are tired of being reminded of it. Post-racial is about getting past all the things about “blackness” that makes White folks uncomfortable. It’s not about getting past whiteness so that race takes on a meaning having nothing to do with a power dynamic (which would be truly post-racial). That would require the acknowledgment that there is a relationship of power between Black folks and White folks. And we still aren’t there.
Obama makes does make White folks feel better in their whiteness. In this sense, we are at a place where some Black men aren’t necessarily frightening, but this is not the same as redefining the image of blackness in the White imagination. In other words, Obama is the exception that proves the rule.
This is not his fault, but I understand the skepticism of some prominent Black folks when Obama (seemingly) plays into these feelings by (seemingly) distancing himself from events, people, and places coded in the White mind as (exclusively) Black. On the other hand, some Black folks of a certain generation do see themselves as the gatekeepers of the race, and by so doing, they re-inscribe this notion that “black interests” are diametrically opposed to “white interests.”
Obama’s biggest challenge as president is to navigate how the America views post-racialness. We’ve already seen how black signifiers like “brushin the dirt of ya shoulder” and givin ya wife a “pound” send the White media and pundits into a tizzy of concern and paranoia. Imagine what will happen if he tries to, oh I don’t know, end mandatory minimums or enforce civil rights legislation.