When I first began this series in September of last year, it was motivated by a series of race-related events that occurred in that month alone. Since that time, the issue of race has taken center stage in America with the rise of Barack Obama’s campaign for President. If Senator Obama’s candidacy does nothing else, it has sparked conversations about race relations in America on a scale I’ve not personally witnessed in decades.
Senator Obama’s speech on race this past week, precipitated by the controversy over incendiary comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor and long-time spiritual mentor, is a milestone in the national dialogue on race, whatever your perceptions of it may be. Some felt it was one of the most significant speeches ever given on race in America, while others thought it didn’t go far enough to repudiate the hateful words of Rev. Wright toward America, its government and white people in general. Even pundits who orbit in the same ideological universe disagreed. Peggy Noonan, the former speechwriter for President Reagan, called the speech “strong, thoughtful and important” while Charles Krauthammer, one of the Washington Post’s few relatively conservative opinion writers, railed against the vitriol of Rev. Wright’s statements and called Obama’s speech “little more than an elegantly crafted, brilliantly sophistic justification of that scandalous dereliction.” I’ve had Republican friends who praised it and others who damned it. It’s got America talking, however. As Peggy Noonan put it in her opinion piece offering measured praise of the speech, “They started talking, pundits left and right, black and white, about what they'd experienced of race in America. It was kind of wonderful. I thought, Go, America, go, go.”
While Senator Obama’s speech is the capstone thus far of the nation’s recent reawakening on the issue of race, it’s not the only event of note in this campaign season. It’s been fascinating to watch Senator Hillary Clinton or her surrogates, including former President Bill Clinton, subtly use the issue of race to discredit Senator Obama’s campaign, and then deny ever playing the race card. I, for one, find their denials disingenuous. The veiled comments about his past drug use, the comparison of his campaign to that of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1988 so as to define him as “the black candidate,” the haughty dismissal of his primary or caucus victories, especially in states with large black populations, the subtle doubts about the veracity of his Christian faith (“as far as I know”?), the comments that he wouldn’t be where he is as a candidate if he weren’t black were so innocent – the list is so long that it’s hard to give the Clintons any room to maneuver out of the corner into which they’ve painted themselves. If they are innocent of using race as a weapon against Senator Obama, why did Senator Clinton feel compelled to apologize to black newspaper editors at their recent national convention? Oh, yes, I forgot – it was one of those apologies where the person apologizing basically puts the culpability on the aggrieved party. You know the words by heart - “You know I am sorry if anyone was offended.” This is a conditional apology that assumes her statements and those of her surrogates were innocuous and simply misinterpreted by overly sensitive black people. The Clintons are many things to many people but no one ever accused them of being naïve or stupid, especially during a campaign.
Ironically, these are the very same Clintons who were so revered in the black community that famed black poet Toni Morrison declared Bill Clinton “the first black president.” For the record, I rejected that characterization of him because this tongue-in-cheek title was bestowed on him for traits that are reflective of only a small slice of black America – “single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas." That description doesn’t encapsulate the black American experience and doesn’t make Bill Clinton “black” either.
In any case, the Clintons have alienated even some of their staunchest black supporters with their thinly veiled attempts to use race as a differentiating issue for voters. The backlash is so great that they’ve pulled back somewhat and confined themselves to more garden-variety political attacks. It may be too late. Before the campaign season officially began, Senator Clinton had a solid lead among black voters of 60 percent or more. Since the primaries and caucuses began, however, Senator Obama is capturing the black vote by enormous margins, in some cases 80 to 90 percent. If Senator Clinton somehow wins the Democratic nomination, the bitterness she has engendered among black voters is so great that I wouldn’t be surprised if they stayed home in November. This campaign has exposed not only the Clintons’ hunger for power regardless of the cost, but also their ability to use race as a wedge issue as well as any member of what Senator Clinton calls “the vast right-wing conspiracy.”
This brings me back to the event in September 2007 around which this installment of the series is based. It involved Bill O’Reilly and the Rev. Al Sharpton, neither of whom are strangers to controversy. Rev. Sharpton treated Mr. O’Reilly to dinner at Sylvia’s, a legendary soul food restaurant in Harlem. Subsequently, he recounted his dining experience on his radio show and tried to point out that the image of blacks often portrayed in the media isn’t based on reality:
"I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. It was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks[and has a] primarily black patronship," O'Reilly said. "There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea!'
"It was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people [who] were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn't any kind of craziness at all."
His remarks provoked cries of racism from critics and prompted Rev. Sharpton to ask him directly about his comments while a guest on Mr. O’Reilly’s television program, The O’Reilly Factor. Mr. O’Reilly fired back at his critics, claiming he was only trying to illustrate that most of white America gets their notions of black America from rap music and the hip-hop culture and that they’d be surprised if they got out more:
"This is what white America doesn't know, particularly people who don't have a lot of interaction with black Americans. They think that the culture is dominated by Twista, Ludacris and Snoop Dogg,"
Rev. Sharpton accepted his explanation and pointed out to Mr. O’Reilly’s critics that the two of them have dined together in Harlem many times before and that he would be surprised if his comments were intentionally racist. Still, the episode illustrates that blacks and whites in 21st century “post-racial” America are still on a hair trigger when it comes to comments about race.
Whenever a racially-charged statement or action such as the O’Reilly incident is reported, we get calls from opinion-makers, pundits and community leaders for more dialogue in order to diffuse the tension and prevent future occurrences of the offensive activity in question. Dialogue is offered up as the salve that will raise everyone’s racial consciousness and lead us all to a better understanding of one another.
How constructive is dialogue, however, when blacks and whites view the world so differently? The Pew Research Center, a respected non-partisan research institution, conducted a survey on racial attitudes in America in late 2007 that accurately captures these divergent worldviews:
“The new nationwide Pew Research Center survey also finds blacks less upbeat about the state of black progress now than at any time since 1983. Looking backward, just one-in-five blacks say things are better for blacks now than they were five years ago. Looking ahead, fewer than half of all blacks (44%) say they think life for blacks will get better in the future, down from the 57% who said so in a 1986 survey.
“Whites have a different perspective. While they, too, have grown less sanguine about black progress, they are nearly twice as likely as blacks to see black gains in the past five years. Also, a majority of whites (56%) say life for blacks in this country will get better in the future.”
Consider that in 2004, this same research center reported that “On most issues relating to race, the gap in opinion between white and black Americans remains substantial.”
An even more revealing study asked white volunteers how much money would cover the "costs" of being born black in America, and they estimated that $5,000 was sufficient. According to one article referencing the study, "Whites are more than twice as likely as blacks to believe that the position of African-Americans has improved a great deal. Blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to believe that conditions for African Americans are growing worse." Interestingly enough, some of the white volunteers in the study were given information about the disparities between blacks and whites in America, and they demanded a much larger sum of money, $500,000. The yardstick by which blacks and whites measure black progress was critical to the conclusions reached by each group. Whites tend to compare the present to the past and see significant and positive change for blacks, while blacks measure their status against an ideal future and find the nation still wanting. When each group was asked to use the other's yardstick, the differences disappeared.
So with whites and blacks viewing the world through different prisms, how do we get to a place where dialogue is actually meaningful?