John Colson: Hit and Run
September 24, 2009
For days and weeks, the issue of race has been pounding on the doors of my inner castle, tapping at the windows in the tree house of my soul.
It came to a head this week, for me, as I was reading a Newsweek magazine (Sept. 28 edition) essay on the subject, written by a black woman whose personal irritability at the topic spilled off the page like red ink applied too liberally during the printing process.
At the very same moment … well, over the course of a few moments, actually … the crew on NPR’s Morning Edition were interviewing a bunch of southerners on the very same topic.
Putting down the magazine to listen, I had a bit of fun trying to decipher which of the voices belonged to black subjects and which to white. It was tough, because the thick Alabamian accents made it difficult to understand what the voices were saying, much less what racial characteristics might control the vocal cords.
Two voices, belonging to barbers who had been activists in the voting-rights battles of the 1960s, waxed philosophical about the need to recognize that we are all one race – the human race, that is – if we are ever to work our way across the racial divide that is one of our nation’s most defining, and least attractive attributes.
Other voices – I think they were at the counter of a diner – complained about how they can’t even criticize President Barack Obama’s political agenda without being tarred as racists. These complainers, I thought, probably were white, and my next thought was of the likelihood that the very lunch counter where they were sitting probably would not have allowed a black man or woman to even sit down a few decades earlier. The ironies of history, and all that.
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When the radio moved on to other topics, I returned to the Newsweek essay and mused about the ideas of Raina Kelley, whose essay was titled, “Play the Race Card; Why avoiding the issue doesn’t help.”
She writes, at one point, that “Almost anything would be better than the ‘post-racial’ and ‘Kumbaya’ crap we’re being peddled” by the talking heads on TV, the pundits and politicians who go to great pains to say the right things regardless of what they feel inside.
Her gripe, I think, is that not enough people are openly saying what she believes everybody is thinking, which is that race is still a huge problem in this country and that having our first black … well, half-black … president hasn’t done much, if anything, to make the problem any better. Put at its simplest, people are not speaking the truth, even as we near the one-year mark in Obama’s presidency.
She’s right, of course. This country remains torn and embarrassed by its historical hypocrisies concerning relations between blacks and whites, and, by extension, relations between the ruling white class and the people of color who happen to live, work, multiply and die here, as well.
She points out that, in too many cases, race as a subject seems to be a matter of such deep shame that even reporters will ignore it when they shouldn’t.
The plain fact is that, for an unknown but quite large number of us, skin color isn’t as important as it once was. Interracial marriages and relationships are all around us, children born of parents of different races blur the lines even more, and by those measures alone it is clear that the barriers are coming down.
But there are still a lot of angry racists around, though many have learned to keep their spiteful attitudes closer to the chest and to couch their evil ideas in coded terminology that clouds the issue. You can see it every day, right here. Sit down at a bar and listen to your fellow drinker rave on about the evils of all the Hispanics who’ve moved to the valley. You know the rant: They’re taking jobs away from white men, depressing wages, sending kids to schools illegally, sucking on the public teat of welfare and emergency-room medical care, the list is a long one and the tone is one of immense frustration.
The fact that the Hispanics are not the real culprits in this tawdry tale is somehow left out of all equations. But that, I guess, is a topic for another day.