Thursday, March 20, 2008

Paranoid Americana

Most African Americans saw this Barack Obama moment coming. They may never have lived in Chicago or heard of Jeremiah Wright before late February. They might not even have been all that excited by Obama as a candidate, but they'll tell you that they knew his candidacy was vulnerable from the start, fated to be sacrificed on the altar of America's racial history—and its contemporary manifestations. Such paranoia pervades American politics, a paranoia that isn’t just coming from Black America.

Right-leaning pundits’ responses to Obama and Wright’s relationship also put white racial suspicions and paranoia on full display. In fact, white Americans are just as paranoid about race as Blacks, only the details change. If Black people fear the utter inevitability of white racism rearing its ugly head (maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but at some point), whites tread lightly around questions of race, because they are afraid of eventually being labeled a ‘racist’. And Jeremiah Wright’s comments, they claim, just makes it all the more impossible for them to talk openly about any of this stuff—at least not with Black people, the ones defending Obama in the press or responding to Wright’s sermon with a chorus of Amens. Cynicism meets cynicism. Paranoia trumps paranoia. Check and mate.

Both sides are probably right. And that’s the real heart of the racial ‘stalemate’ that Obama invoked in his historic speech. But how should we respond to that fact, especially if we want to move the country forward in healthy and productive ways?

One thing that probably doesn’t work (even though it is usually the option of choice for most of us) is simply trying to prove to the other side that they are less profoundly right—or just plain wrong. Everyone is so dug-in and defensive that few people will really change sides—no matter how reasoned or heart-felt the other’s argument might be.

The only chance we have to resolve this impasse starts with an interrogation of our personal commitments, taking the time to forge personal relationships with people who reside on the other side of America’s racial tracks. That is what allows Tiger Woods to dismiss Golf Channel TV anchor Kelly Tilghman’s lynching comments about him. It explains Black comedian Paul Mooney’s ability to shrug off Michael Richards’ racist diatribe. They have personal relationship with these people, substantive inter-racial contact that mitigates the mutual estrangement and social distance that heightens our racial fears. Of course, such relationships shouldn’t just be one-way streets. They can’t only be about Blacks letting whites off the hook for insensitive jokes. But people can better work through those moments when they have built social connections that are solid and real.

Many Americans live the most intimate parts of their everyday lives—at home with family, relaxing alongside close friends, and attending their houses of worship—in racially segregated worlds. We are polite in mixed company, but we don’t necessarily build robust relationships across racial lines. And that too, I’d argue, is about a kind of racial paranoia, fear of what might happen–to us and them—if we tried, if our commitment to colleagues and acquaintances of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds went beyond just a nervous smile and a purposefully innocuous conversation about the NBA season, if it entailed more than just a passing discussion on a street corner somewhere about the new department store that opened up downtown.

Of course, we might get rebuffed. Or we might do something initially that seems to miss its mark. Probably. But if we push through those initial missteps, if we are committed to fixing our collective racial problem by opening up our most precious social networks, we’ll keep going forward. If we do, we’ll find that people who really know us, who really care about us, who think of us as more than a just a recognizable face on the way to the bank or the employee cafeteria, are usually more than willing to forgive an unintended faux pas. The key, however, is to cultivate real bonds across social difference—strong ties, not weak ones.

This isn’t a smoking gun for all of America’s social problems, but it is one important first step. And it could move the dialogue beyond accusation and counter-accusation, toward real intimate conversations that have long-lasting impact—personally and politically. If nothing else, we’ll be able to take America’s collective racial paranoia and knock it down a peg or two.

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