Daily Archives: March 20, 2008

Breaking the Racial Silence

About a year and a half ago, a “racial controversy” happened on the Johns Hopkins campus, in Baltimore, Maryland. It was a complicated issue and so I’m going to over-simplify some things for the sake of clarity in making my point. There was an offensive party invitation, which did merit punishment. The party itself was innocent, but some people misinterpreted some things. When the media circus descended, when the NAACP came to town, the issue erupted into the full-blown racial controversy that it was. The small issue had become engulfed in a cloud of bogus claims of racism. Now, while those claims were bogus, the racial tension was real. And amidst all that, there was a real issue where people’s feelings were legitimately hurt. Again, it’s a complicated issue.

How did our university respond? Not by seeking the truth (ironic considering our motto), but by covering their asses. They threw the offenders, the fraternity Sigma Chi, under the bus. Such is the brutal stigma of racism. Even a fake taint will cause people to run away. I’m not surprised by the university’s response at all, though. This is how we deal with the issue of race. We all do our best to say we’re not racist, we condemn the offending party, and then pretend the issue is all resolved. The complicated issue is never dealt with in a complicated way. Nuance disappears. Everyone plays the roles they were assigned. People feel offended. People feel like those people shouldn’t be offended. Everyone covers their asses. The issue blows over, and we never actually make any progress.

Of course, what never was mentioned in the media was how the kid who wrote the original party invitation was not a white kid. He was an Asian kid who wasn’t even born in the country. Like I said, complicated issue.

The point I want to make is not just that race is a complicated issue. It’s that the old polarizing lens through which we view race is no longer useful.

This generation didn’t grow up with the same events burned into our collective consciousnesses as the Boomer generation. I didn’t grow up seeing segregated bathrooms and fountains. I didn’t grow up seeing the struggle to fight all that. I didn’t see Wallace vow “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” I didn’t see Martin Luther King’s speeches. Well, I did. But only in the context of history, and not in the context of now. That makes a big difference. I didn’t grow up seeing a struggle between good and evil, on the issue of race. I’ve grown up where sometimes the enemy isn’t any one person, but our own subconscious biases. Structural disadvantages often trump overt racism, now. It becomes harder to blame specific people for specific injustices.

I wrote this last year: “The pivotal divide in race relations is actually not between any races. It’s between young and old people.” At the time, it was speculation, something to mull over. Now, I’m convinced it’s correct.

I went on to say:

We’ll be able to move forward regarding race when a new guard takes over. For now, we’ll have to deal with the essential silence on the question of race because of fear of the stigma of being a racist.

I don’t mean “move forward” in the way that liberals think of “progress,” just that we’ll reach the next stage when we realize that the next stage isn’t the old stage.

At the time, it seemed as if we needed to wait a generation before we could move forward. But maybe a President Obama would help us move forward. Obama will not be the first African-American candidate for the presidency. He represents something which appeals to me much more. He will be the first multi-racial candidate. With regard to the aforementioned divide, I think Obama is on the side of the young. He didn’t grow up the same way I did, but his speech convinced me that he recognizes the modern complexities of racial issues.

I don’t know if this speech will occupy a hallowed place in history. The speech is very unique to this historical moment. It perhaps demarcates a generational shift in the way we approach race. I don’t know if future generations will appreciate it. But I do.

I’m glad there’s a politician who decided to think instead of cover his ass. I’ve seen the old way of dealing with racial issues. I saw the circus that solved nothing — nay, it made things worse.

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with several of the students in my dorm. We eventually touched on this issue, listening to the perspectives from different sides of the story. Americans do discuss race in nuanced terms, but they do so in private. It was amazing to see Obama discuss this in public. To see a politician acknowledge the latent racism in both the black and white communities, to see him talk about race so honestly, was to see an act of remarkable bravery.

These weren’t my thoughts while I was listening to the speech. But after careful reflection of the context of the speech, that’s what I think. The current racial situation is stalemated; people are afraid to really honestly address race. For 45 minutes, Obama managed to break through the current racial silence. Hopefully, we can more publicly break that silence as well.

Let’s move forward.

Tomorrow: My political analysis of the speech.