Why Are Americans Still So Ignorant about Race?

For reasons that I will get to later, I'll begin with a newsflash that no one really cares about: not all blacks in America are descendants of slaves. It never ceases to amaze how many times I have had to interject this self-evident and yet often overlooked truth into "serious" discussions on the topic of race with friends and associates.

Some time ago, this would not have bothered me. On a variety of topics, I had always believed Americans to be a curious and intelligent people. Therefore, I always gave my fellow citizens the benefit of the doubt regarding their various understandings of our pesky and convoluted race issues. If on the surface they seemed not to get it, when seriously prodded, I always assumed that they eventually would.

In those days, I loved to talk about race. I relished opportunities that allowed for my point of view on race relations in America. Especially during trips abroad, with great pride, I defended the subtlety of the American intellect and the resolve of our national character, arguing that no other nation in history had confronted its race problems with more passion, sincerity, and determination. I challenged skeptical Europeans, cynical Africans, and a slew of others to name any nation in the history of mankind that has -- in the name of race relations -- fought a full-blown Civil War, contrived widely known movements and demonstrations, and amended its Constitution, all of which changed the course of its own history, not to mention that of so many other nations...a nation whose major characters of the events aforementioned have come to symbolize the very idea of racial peace and reconciliation throughout the world. Rarely did I have to entertain a rebuttal.

Lately, though, especially in this age of Obama, I have begun to wonder if back then I was being called a "stupid American" behind my back. After all, many of the momentous events to which I referred were part of America's victorious and weighty past. What about now? What if anything does the average American know about race relations today? Can we speak intelligently and in a forward-thinking way about racial and cultural subjects, or have we resigned ourselves to giving O.J. Simpson, Rodney King, Tawana Brawley, and more recently, Rev. Wright permanent seats at our proverbial roundtables on race?  

What can be said about a nation that does not understand the depth and complexity of its own racial history? Or for a nation that takes for that history for granted? Why do Americans insist upon pigeonholing their compatriots based on antediluvian, Reconstruction-era racial categories and mangled histories which thoughtlessly lump together a people with such a diversity of remarkable cultural experiences?

I ask these questions because I am at a loss. One would think that the sheer complexity and variety of new racial topics that the Obama presidency has spurred would be a harbinger of more nuanced discourse on the subject. Instead, a view from the couch and a quick read online shows that Americans are proving themselves mere lightweights when it comes to understanding and putting forth meaningful expositions on themes surrounding race and culture.

Between those on the Left who stupidly question the authenticity of black Tea Partiers to those on the Right who are intent on creating an unnecessary cultural wedge issue for conservatives with their witless cries for an "unhyphenated America," I am no longer confident that traditional Americans (black or white) know what they are talking about when it comes to race and ethnicity. I no longer think that most Americans can even decipher between the color of a person's skin and his cultural experiences, much less understand why making such distinctions is important.

This is why in 2008, many Americans foolishly rushed to endorse Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton as their Democratic nominee and then later for the presidency of the United States. Mr. Obama was a wonderful showpiece for racial progress, but as some tried to explain, he does not represent the real thing.

Fools rush in. This from a recent article written by Walter Russell Mead for the American Interest Online:

No president in my lifetime has fallen from heaven to earth as rapidly as President Obama.  Others have lost popularity and lost control of Congress, but none fell from such a height.  Who can forget the rapturous cries of joy when he was elected in 2008?  Who can forget all those predictions of a "transformational presidency," hailing the one term Senator from Illinois as a new Lincoln, a new FDR, and (my personal favorite) the "Democratic Reagan"?

Some of this was a natural pride that virtually the entire country felt at the election of our first African-American President.  Slaves helped build the Capitol building; to see a black man take the oath of office on those steps was a great historic moment  --  a visible sign of healing and grace. America's first black President means something regardless of politics and party to everyone in this country and even to everyone in the world.

Mr. Mead. Are you kidding me? What on earth does Barack Obama have to do with the slaves who helped build the Capitol building? The last time I checked, Barack Obama does not come from a history of black American slavery. His mother was a white Euro-American, and his father was an East African whose ancestors probably never set foot on New World soil. Perhaps Mr. Mead was confusing Barack with Michelle Obama, a person who actually has a history of slavery in her family. Perhaps he views their cultural and historical experiences as unimportant and therefore interchangeable. After all, they are both "African-Americans" -- a people who obviously think alike and have gone through the same things.

The careless assumptions of Mr. Mead and those like him have become nothing short of cringe-inducing, but they are also extremely revealing. They reveal that America still has a profound race problem. The problem is ignorance.

Now, back to my unimportant newsflash: as counterintuitive as it may be for most to consider, let's consider it -- not all "blacks" in this country are descendants of slaves, Barack Obama and yours truly included. Like Mr. Obama, I am a product of direct (West) African ancestry and therefore have had little reason to use nineteenth-century race tropes as a way of understanding my relationship with my fellow Americans -- whatever their color. This is not to say that those of us who cannot be categorized as traditional black Americans have not faced bigotry or, in extreme instances, pure racism. Maybe we have, maybe we haven't. But that's not the point. The point is that as "blacks," we don't all have the same historical or emotional attachments to slavery, Jim Crow segregation, or, dare I say it, the Civil Rights Movement. In other words, there are plenty of us first- and second-generation-born hyphenated-Americans who do not see ourselves as standard-bearers for a historically oppressed minority group.

America has a diverse ethnic history that cannot always be encapsulated within the black slave vs. white slave owner example. We are more than that and have always been. There are plenty of blacks in this country who are descendants of black slave owners, free black men and women, or African slave traders. In the same vein, there are plenty of whites in this country who are descendants of indentured servants or, yes, white slaves. When you start to peel off the layers, race in America is actually a pretty complicated thing. The temptation to ignore these complexities in favor of the easy race narratives that helped elect Barack Obama is understandable but wrong. At this point, these narratives serve only one purpose: they aid in keeping our sensibilities on race in a time warp, making us look stupid to ourselves and to the rest of the world.

Trying to squeeze unique American individuals into the comfortably dull yet inauthentic racial and cultural paradigms which Rachel Maddow or Columbia University Race Authority Marc Lamont Hill tells us to ascribe to is no longer working. It's the whole square peg, round hole thing -- it just doesn't fit.

Sadly, though, it seems as if many Americans are intent on doing just that -- making it fit.
For reasons that I will get to later, I'll begin with a newsflash that no one really cares about: not all blacks in America are descendants of slaves. It never ceases to amaze how many times I have had to interject this self-evident and yet often overlooked truth into "serious" discussions on the topic of race with friends and associates.

Some time ago, this would not have bothered me. On a variety of topics, I had always believed Americans to be a curious and intelligent people. Therefore, I always gave my fellow citizens the benefit of the doubt regarding their various understandings of our pesky and convoluted race issues. If on the surface they seemed not to get it, when seriously prodded, I always assumed that they eventually would.

In those days, I loved to talk about race. I relished opportunities that allowed for my point of view on race relations in America. Especially during trips abroad, with great pride, I defended the subtlety of the American intellect and the resolve of our national character, arguing that no other nation in history had confronted its race problems with more passion, sincerity, and determination. I challenged skeptical Europeans, cynical Africans, and a slew of others to name any nation in the history of mankind that has -- in the name of race relations -- fought a full-blown Civil War, contrived widely known movements and demonstrations, and amended its Constitution, all of which changed the course of its own history, not to mention that of so many other nations...a nation whose major characters of the events aforementioned have come to symbolize the very idea of racial peace and reconciliation throughout the world. Rarely did I have to entertain a rebuttal.

Lately, though, especially in this age of Obama, I have begun to wonder if back then I was being called a "stupid American" behind my back. After all, many of the momentous events to which I referred were part of America's victorious and weighty past. What about now? What if anything does the average American know about race relations today? Can we speak intelligently and in a forward-thinking way about racial and cultural subjects, or have we resigned ourselves to giving O.J. Simpson, Rodney King, Tawana Brawley, and more recently, Rev. Wright permanent seats at our proverbial roundtables on race?  

What can be said about a nation that does not understand the depth and complexity of its own racial history? Or for a nation that takes for that history for granted? Why do Americans insist upon pigeonholing their compatriots based on antediluvian, Reconstruction-era racial categories and mangled histories which thoughtlessly lump together a people with such a diversity of remarkable cultural experiences?

I ask these questions because I am at a loss. One would think that the sheer complexity and variety of new racial topics that the Obama presidency has spurred would be a harbinger of more nuanced discourse on the subject. Instead, a view from the couch and a quick read online shows that Americans are proving themselves mere lightweights when it comes to understanding and putting forth meaningful expositions on themes surrounding race and culture.

Between those on the Left who stupidly question the authenticity of black Tea Partiers to those on the Right who are intent on creating an unnecessary cultural wedge issue for conservatives with their witless cries for an "unhyphenated America," I am no longer confident that traditional Americans (black or white) know what they are talking about when it comes to race and ethnicity. I no longer think that most Americans can even decipher between the color of a person's skin and his cultural experiences, much less understand why making such distinctions is important.

This is why in 2008, many Americans foolishly rushed to endorse Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton as their Democratic nominee and then later for the presidency of the United States. Mr. Obama was a wonderful showpiece for racial progress, but as some tried to explain, he does not represent the real thing.

Fools rush in. This from a recent article written by Walter Russell Mead for the American Interest Online:

No president in my lifetime has fallen from heaven to earth as rapidly as President Obama.  Others have lost popularity and lost control of Congress, but none fell from such a height.  Who can forget the rapturous cries of joy when he was elected in 2008?  Who can forget all those predictions of a "transformational presidency," hailing the one term Senator from Illinois as a new Lincoln, a new FDR, and (my personal favorite) the "Democratic Reagan"?

Some of this was a natural pride that virtually the entire country felt at the election of our first African-American President.  Slaves helped build the Capitol building; to see a black man take the oath of office on those steps was a great historic moment  --  a visible sign of healing and grace. America's first black President means something regardless of politics and party to everyone in this country and even to everyone in the world.

Mr. Mead. Are you kidding me? What on earth does Barack Obama have to do with the slaves who helped build the Capitol building? The last time I checked, Barack Obama does not come from a history of black American slavery. His mother was a white Euro-American, and his father was an East African whose ancestors probably never set foot on New World soil. Perhaps Mr. Mead was confusing Barack with Michelle Obama, a person who actually has a history of slavery in her family. Perhaps he views their cultural and historical experiences as unimportant and therefore interchangeable. After all, they are both "African-Americans" -- a people who obviously think alike and have gone through the same things.

The careless assumptions of Mr. Mead and those like him have become nothing short of cringe-inducing, but they are also extremely revealing. They reveal that America still has a profound race problem. The problem is ignorance.

Now, back to my unimportant newsflash: as counterintuitive as it may be for most to consider, let's consider it -- not all "blacks" in this country are descendants of slaves, Barack Obama and yours truly included. Like Mr. Obama, I am a product of direct (West) African ancestry and therefore have had little reason to use nineteenth-century race tropes as a way of understanding my relationship with my fellow Americans -- whatever their color. This is not to say that those of us who cannot be categorized as traditional black Americans have not faced bigotry or, in extreme instances, pure racism. Maybe we have, maybe we haven't. But that's not the point. The point is that as "blacks," we don't all have the same historical or emotional attachments to slavery, Jim Crow segregation, or, dare I say it, the Civil Rights Movement. In other words, there are plenty of us first- and second-generation-born hyphenated-Americans who do not see ourselves as standard-bearers for a historically oppressed minority group.

America has a diverse ethnic history that cannot always be encapsulated within the black slave vs. white slave owner example. We are more than that and have always been. There are plenty of blacks in this country who are descendants of black slave owners, free black men and women, or African slave traders. In the same vein, there are plenty of whites in this country who are descendants of indentured servants or, yes, white slaves. When you start to peel off the layers, race in America is actually a pretty complicated thing. The temptation to ignore these complexities in favor of the easy race narratives that helped elect Barack Obama is understandable but wrong. At this point, these narratives serve only one purpose: they aid in keeping our sensibilities on race in a time warp, making us look stupid to ourselves and to the rest of the world.

Trying to squeeze unique American individuals into the comfortably dull yet inauthentic racial and cultural paradigms which Rachel Maddow or Columbia University Race Authority Marc Lamont Hill tells us to ascribe to is no longer working. It's the whole square peg, round hole thing -- it just doesn't fit.

Sadly, though, it seems as if many Americans are intent on doing just that -- making it fit.

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