It’s hard to believe that just three months ago we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. But today I’m thinking of something President Obama said at the time.
We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress, this hard-won progress — our progress — would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.
That one goes down a little harder today than it did three months ago. As I noted earlier, the shooting at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston this week evokes memories of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church 52 years ago in Birmingham. Combined with the recent high-profile police shootings of unarmed Black men, it’s no wonder that people are starting to question whether things have really changed much.
As I do so often at moments like this, I go back to something Derrick Jensen wrote in his book The Culture of Make Believe.
From the perspective of those who are entitled, the problems begin when those they despise do not go along with—and have the power and wherewithal to not go along with—the perceived entitlement…
Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, “normal,” chronic state—where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized.
Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remains underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.
So we must ask ourselves, “what is it that has threatened the entitlement?” In other words, what was Roof talking about when he said “you’re taking over our country?” To approach an answer to those questions, I think about something Jonathan Chait wrote after watching the movie 12 Years a Slave.
Notably, the most horrific torture depicted in 12 Years a Slave is set in motion when the protagonist, Solomon Northup, offers up to his master engineering knowledge he acquired as a free man, thereby showing up his enraged white overseer. It was precisely Northup’s calm, dignified competence in the scene that so enraged his oppressor. The social system embedded within slavery as depicted in the film is one that survived long past the Emancipation Proclamation – the one that resulted in the murder of Emmett Till a century after Northup published his autobiography. It’s a system in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person.
The situation Chait is describing is what the Obama era represents and involves a whole different kind of challenge than the one’s we’ve dealt with in the past over slavery, segregation and Jim Crow. With the election of our first African American president, white people are having to deal with a black man as not only our equal, but our leader. Too many of us are prepared for neither. While most white people would not support slavery or legal discrimination, we’re not really ready to look black people in the eye as equals, much less see them in positions of authority over us. That is what decades of programming has done to our collective consciousness…we assume deference.
I’m not suggesting that the election of Barack Obama as president is the sole reason we’re seeing this explosion of hatred. I think Tim Wise did a pretty good job of explaining what’s happening when he talked about “the perfect storm for white anxiety.” But what has prompted the Third Reconstruction that Rev. William Barber talks about is clearly rooted in the racism evoked by the idea of our first African American president.
David Remnick – who, as Barack Obama’s biographer, perhaps knows him better than any other journalist – suggests that the President is well aware of all that.
Like many others, I’ve often tried to imagine how Obama’s mind works in these moments. After one interview in the Oval Office, he admitted to me that he was hesitant to answer some of my questions about race more fully or with less caution, for just as a stray word from him about, say, monetary policy could affect the financial markets, so, too, could a harsh or intemperate word about race affect the political temper of the country.
Obama is a flawed President, but his sense of historical perspective is well developed. He gives every sign of believing that his most important role in the American history of race was his election in November, 2008, and, nearly as important, his reÃ«lection, four years later. For millions of Americans, that election was an inspiration. But, for some untold number of others, it remains a source of tremendous resentment, a kind of threat that is capable, in some, of arousing the basest prejudices.
Obama hates to talk about this. He allows himself so little latitude. Maybe that will change when he is an ex-President focussed on his memoirs. As a very young man he wrote a book about becoming, about identity, about finding community in a black church, about finding a sense of home—in his case, on the South Side of Chicago, with a young lawyer named Michelle Robinson. It will be beyond interesting to see what he’s willing to tell us—tell us with real freedom—about being the focus of so much hope, but also the subject of so much ambient and organized racial anger: the birther movement, the death threats, the voter-suppression attempts, the articles, books, and films that portray him as everything from an unreconstructed, drug-addled campus radical to a Kenyan post-colonial socialist. This has been the Age of Obama, but we have learned over and over that this has hardly meant the end of racism in America. Not remotely. Dylann Roof, tragically, seems to be yet another terrible reminder of that.
In an interview with Remnick last year, President Obama gave us some idea of how he sees his role in the long process of “perfecting our union.”
“I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he said. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have.” The long view again. “But I think our decisions matter,” he went on. “And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
Perhaps that’s why I’ve always loved the pairing of this song with these images. It captures that “long-running story” and ends with the moment that sparked both the hope and the threat that Remnick described. We just need to add a clause at the end…”to be continued.”