Head in the Sand?

I've written and posted here before about how race is clearly the 800-pound gorilla in America's communal living room. I'm tired of that analogy; it offers a cartoonish version of a problem that I see more in the horrifying vein of a Francis Bacon painting. So let's instead see it that way -- as a raw and open wound on every citizen's back. We look in the mirror and we don't see it. We could if we turned just so and tried, but we don't really want to. Few people in the public eye ever want to acknowledge or talk about this wound. To do so is to risk accusations of "playing the race card," among other criticisms. Well, the whole idea of playing cards is that, in order to have a successful game, everyone playing needs to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each card in the deck.

So maybe now, finally, it's time to reframe the discussion. Let's stop the game so we're not "playing" any cards, and simply examine this race card in the light and try to understand how it fits into the deck that constitutes America's political landscape.

Morally, now is always the opportune time to have a national dialogue about race. The problem is, moral leadership often bends to political expediency.

Still, every time some racially-charged event unfolds in real time (more and more these days than any time since the Rodney King riots in LA), whenever some egregious incident makes headlines, we're told this at long last is an opportunity for a national dialogue on race. Yet that dialogue never happens.

Most recently, it very publically didn't happen with the kabuki theatrics of the "White House Beer Summit" featuring Prof. Gates, Sgt. Crowley, the President and Vice-President. Much to my disappointment, that turned out to be a dressed up photo-op falsely addressing the issue that was its raison d'être. I wouldn't be surprised to find out the beer was non-alcoholic.

Finally, though, moral urgency and political expediency may have intersected, and now might actually be the time to have this national dialogue we're always believing is just around the corner. My thanks go out to South Carolina's Joe Wilson, whose frat-boy cockiness and inexcusably ill-mannered behavior at last week's Special Congressional Session managed to shock the complacent established media into tackling the subject of race head-on.

At least the mainstream media in the form of Maureen Dowd, who has come around to seeing the painfully obvious when she wrote in her New York Times column:

I've been loath to admit that the shrieking lunacy of the summer -- the frantic efforts to paint our first black president as the Other, a foreigner, socialist, fascist, Marxist, racist, Commie, Nazi; a cad who would snuff old people; a snake who would indoctrinate kids -- had much to do with race.

But Wilson's shocking disrespect for the office of the president -- no Democrat ever shouted "liar" at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq -- convinced me: Some people just can't believe a black man is president and will never accept it.

"Dowd found the courage to state explicitly what so many of us have been thinking," writes Lindsay Beyerstein at her blog, Majikthise. Its one thing when liberal bloggers say that Joe Wilson has issues with a black man being president, it's quite another to see it spelled out on The New York Times Op-ed page.

As media and political pundits were reacting to Maureen Dowd's statements, the voice of former President Jimmy Carter has the audacity to cut through the noise and directly address that idea we're all so seemingly afraid to consider:

I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely-demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man. I live in the South, and I've seen the South come a long way, and I've seen the rest of the country that share the South's attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African Americans.

And that racism inclination still exists. And I think it's bubbled up to the surface because of the belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It's an abominable circumstance, and it grieves me and concerns me very deeply.

Hello! Of course, race is a factor. That we may not be able to measure it statistically doesn't mean it is not significant. Andrew Sullivan wrote that:

The right is projecting its shadow onto Obama. The same qualities that make him a saint to the left make him the devil to the right -- he is easy to project onto.

That is why he is the out-of-control spender when they sat on their hands through all of Bush's malfeasance. That is why his talking to schoolchildren is dangerous when our government wiretapping its citizens wasn't. That is why saving the financial system from years of Republican regulation is taking away our future. The more evil revealed about the right's excesses on torture, or wars of choice, or nearly destroying the economy, the more evil Obama will look in their eyes, as they cannot tolerate owning responsibility, because in their own minds they are only good.

85-year-old Jimmy Carter knows the South and our country. Even though Obama was elected with 43% of the white vote, he received only 10-14% of that vote in the South. And that isn't because his platform runs against those states' interests. Something else is clearly at work here. But knowing that and acknowledging it are two vastly different things.

Through his press secretary Robert Gibbs -- himself a white southerner -- Obama was quick to respond to President Carter's comment.

The president does not believe that that criticism comes based on the color of his skin. We understand that people have disagreements with some of the decisions that we've made and some of the extraordinary actions that had to be undertaken by both this administration and previous administrations to stabilize our financial system, to ensure viability of our domestic auto industry. [Emphasis added].

That was a press statement that reflected neither the truth of the situation nor the honest appraisal of the man in whose name the statement is being attributed. Just because he's black and President does not mean he must "recuse" himself from commenting on obvious reality: the racist placards and signs of the right wing protesters are not only a call to action for white supremacists and Klansmen, they are a clarion call to those being attacked.

President Obama and his advisers act as if race is a political "third rail." Yes, it is. But third rails rarely electrocute cautious individuals. What they do far more successfully is power the trains.

Once upon a time, in another century, in another America -- an America where an African American president would seem more like a hallucination than a possibility -- Nelson Rockefeller shared with me that he found nothing more despicable than "men who had real power without the courage or conviction to use it."

This is a lesson President Obama should really take to heart. Openly discussing the problem of racism in America at the highest offices of government isn't stooping to the racists' level, it isn't taking the bait. In fact, protesters and certain senators do what they do precisely because they can reliably predict Obama will not call them out on it.

Maybe it's time for a new take on that strategy, one with some teeth.

Strategically, I agree that the immediate possibility of meaningful health care reform is more urgent than Obama focusing on the national importance of a serious dialogue on race in America. But leadership goes beyond tactics. Every parent knows you can mash up aspirin in a child's applesauce and avoid the Sturm und Drang, but at some point kids are better off understanding the medicine they're taking and realizing the benefits outweigh the taste. That's what true leadership is, treating the soft citizenry like they're adults. And boy, it's as rare today as it is necessary.

The political reality is that Obama and his advisers must know that racial tension and the absence of national leadership fostering a national discussion of race issues in our country is the Sword of Damocles dangling over this presidency. If the mere act of a reporter like Maureen Dowd reconsidering her ideas and coming forward with an indictment can cause a media frenzy, how much more so the first African American president? It will be worth it. Long after medical care has changed to the point that this era looks like bloodletting and leaches, long after the US economy has shifted and adapted, gone through reforms and reboots, this administration and this president will be remember for one thing above all else:

Obama will forever be either the man who healed this septic wound that runs across the back of this nation, or the man who turned away from the mirror to solve more "practical" issues.

Yes, I remember well that Dr. King often "turned the other cheek" rather than encourage a violent response in kind. But, I also remember that he would exercise his leadership to "kick ass and take no prisoners", non-violently, for what he believed was right. He did not remain silent, appease, or kowtow for the sake of keeping peace. The man led by speaking his mind. (Yeah, I know. He was not an elected political leader).

President Obama can have health care reform and heal our nation's racial ills. Now that's strong medicine. I can think of no greater calling and enduring monument to his Presidency in the twenty-first century.