Public Comment

White, Black / Neither, Both

By Marvin Chachere
Thursday September 04, 2008 - 09:33:00 AM

Nothing distinguishes America from other nations as markedly as the place held by involuntary immigrants from Africa and their descendants.  

It took a Civil War to end slavery and what followed was a long parade of shifts and turns: in the former slave states the Black Codes restored many slave conditions; the one-drop rule was re-framed and euphemized by social scientists as a “Negro question,” a “Negro problem,” and an “American dilemma.” Then prolonged legal contentions joined the parade: separate but equal, discrimination, integration, assimilation, equal opportunity, affirmative action, and a scattering of gaps in achievement, education, wealth, etc. And on the sidelines the arts bore witness and produced insights with music, dance, drama, literature, painting, etc. 

We’re now entering an era that features a half African, half American man with a serious chance of becoming president and pundits think we’re near the end of the parade or close to erasing those shameful race-based conditions forever.  

In the dominant media the current situation is dealt with in a variety of ways one of which discusses the question of America’s readiness for a black president. 

I am among a minority who believe that questioning America’s readiness is stupid. 

The stupidity lies in accepting without question the existence of America’s readiness and ignoring the obvious fact that America never knows if it’s ready until it happens. JFK had to get enough votes before we knew that America was ready for a Catholic president. FDR had to die before we knew if Truman was ready, which suggests that the hidden purpose of questioning America’s readiness may be, perversely, to question Obama’s readiness. 

I am among the majority who are sick to death of racial considerations, barnacles on the ship of state, persisting inordinately to dominate public discourse thereby distracting the nation from more general concerns.  

To deal with race as a “wild” playing card doesn’t win anything; it merely extends and exposes the unreal aspects of the game. Race is oil on a fire that destroys rational discussion. Sad to say, from now until November 4th we can expect repeated flair ups fanned vigorously by denizens of the dominant media.  

It takes subtlety and invention to keep the fire burning.  

For instance, it infuriates me to read on the front page of the New York Times, “Poll Finds Obama Isn’t Closing Divide on Race” (report by Adam Nagourney and Megan Thee, July 16). The title itself implies a certain weakness on the part of the presumptive Democratic nominee; there is a divide Obama can’t close, something hurtful he can’t assuage. (In my minority view there is no racial divide but that you, Adam, Megan and NYT editors, make it so.)  

As I read the article my fury grew.  

The poll sought to measure the difference between responses made by whites and those made by blacks to a number of questions. For instance, 55 percent of whites said race relations are generally good and 34 percent said race relations are generally bad, while the percentages for blacks on this question were reversed, 29 percent good, 59 percent bad.  

The poll was conducted by telephone which suggests that the responders were required to declare themselves on one side or the other of this foggy white/black divide. This potentially invalidates the poll; what’s to prevent responders from misidentifying themselves, knowingly or unknowingly? After all, the categories white and black sometimes overlap; there are people like me (and Obama) with a leg on each side of this hazy divide.  

After I finished the article and calmed down somewhat I reflected on the notion of human divides. A young/old divide is fuzzy, a European/Asian divide is less fuzzy. Then I thought about a poll reporting what foreigners thought about race relations in America. How would our English, French, German, Italian cousins, say, view race relations in America; what percent would think good, what percent bad? What do American Latinos think about race relations? Before long I decided that none of this mattered. There are all kinds of ways to divide a cake but none of them affects its taste.  

Many pundits declare and politicians agree that America must confront its racial past; this time around, they say, America will get the candid discussion it has avoided for two centuries; any form of discrimination based on race must at last go the way of the dodo.  

Maybe. We’ll see. 

Finally, I am hit with excruciating pain, like fingernails on a blackboard, every time I encounter the word “racism.” My memory immediately flashes back to 1952 when I moved to Boston because I could not legally marry a white woman in New Orleans.  

Personal feelings aside, racism, if it means anything at all, should be used sparingly or not at all because ism is an insidious suffix; it besmirches the clear concepts to which it is attached—terrorism, extremism, conservatism—or renders abstract that which is basically concrete—sexism, globalism, consumerism. Furthermore, racism is at best a subjective, vaguely defined concept; race has no clear referent outside the minds of individuals using it. And anyway, “racism” carries explosive pejorative force so emotionally powerful that it obliterates the calm base required for meaningful discourse. Allow racism to enter a conversation and emotion overpowers reason. 

But, in truth, unavoidable cynicism tells me that race is not the elephant in the political parlor; rather it is the mouse in the kitchen. Our political and social leaders use it to frighten and control us, which leads me to wonder what they’ll come up with if Obama wins in November. 


Marvin Chachere is a San Pablo resident.