Jul 30, 2009

The Backlash Against Race

We have ostensibly reached a point in this country where race is a liability in the exact opposite context of a hundred years ago. Fifty years ago, even. Henry Louis Gates' situation only highlights the sort of intolerance for racial grandstanding - playing the race card, in effect - that pervades our culture and our media. This non-story has been on the news for a week now, and all because a president - notice I don't say "black" president - invoked stupidity in the course of a wrongful arrest.

That the officer turned out to be using more or less correct protocol and Gates phrasing his assault in sophomoric language - can a Harvard intellectual not be in possession of the patois of the schoolyard? - only complicates the issue, even though as I have stated before, it is a non-issue. But, even an admission of it being a non-story only acts to buoy the race issue, since it has become a nationwide fascination, and provided those who think the plight of minorities in today's world to be dubious with a little more vitriol.

What must now be considered in our discourse on race is sophistication in discussion. There are few blatantly Rodney King-ian situations to hold up against our societal fabric and say, "Here! Racism is obviously still here." Racism does exist. The question is, to what extent does it exist and to what degree is it implied? Racism has become more pervasive, just as its opponents have become more attuned to both rhetorical and actual minutiae of social interaction.

It's easy, when judged against earlier standards, to say that it doesn't exist whatsoever, but that is misleading. It both exists and does exist, and each nationally televised situation cannot simultaneously be both. But this is the point we have reached, when someone labels something as such and another person must play contrarian. American is now filled with mutually excommunicating factions, making exactly opposite claims on race. They creates "sides" to which we must subscribe, so that we can be identified as one or the other, when in fact the spectrum of race in this country is much wider, more like a continuum than a simple binary.

Henry Louis Gates might have stood on sturdier ground not to first point to race in the case of his arrest, but as someone who has spent a majority of his life attached to racial deconstruction, it is naturally his mode of discourse. What is being lost in the story is the sense that the lines of communication in this debate are not open. Indeed, it's not a debate at all, but a screaming match. Race is complicated, and should be treated as such. Ratings-driven broadcasters have oversimplified the issue for the benefit of ratings, because two people yelling discordant statements about race plays better than two people actually coming to an understanding. How much better would it be if two people from ostensibly different sides compromised? My naivete precedes me, but I can think of nothing better than not feeling like I have to dig in my heels against a person of a different opinion.

The opposite of that is also not conceivable, and I concede that point as well. We cannot proscribe a list of commandments which says "this is racism" and "this is not". Every situation requires we look at it from a unique perspective. In that way, and forgive the phrase, it is not so black and white.

Edit: And what is ironic about this is that I chose to blog about race rather than Health Care or the Banks.

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