Race Matters. So Does Hope.

By Marjorie Valbrun
Saturday, February 2, 2008

Let's be honest. Race does matter. Everyone knows it. Yes, in a perfect world it wouldn't matter, but ours is far from perfect, and the current American political climate is even more so.

Nevertheless, the recent images of college students, most of them white, chanting "Race doesn't matter" at Barack Obama campaign rallies have been heartwarming. The young people have embraced this mantra and buoyed their candidate's vote tallies in the primaries with earnest and youthful idealism. By doing so, they've signaled that they are looking beyond race and choosing a standard-bearer who can redefine and realign the country's political-racial landscape.

Admirable? Yes. Impressive? Absolutely. Moving? How could it not be? Racially transcendent? Not a chance.

These students have come of age at a time when American race relations are not the nuclear subject they were for their parents' generation. They have less rigid ideas about race and tend to have a more diverse collection of friends. They live at a time when the concept of biracial or multiracial identities is familiar. Caroline Kennedy said her three teenage children influenced her decision to endorse Barack Obama.

This is indeed an incredible moment, for young people and the nation. Yet many Americans of all stripes are struggling between buying into the notion that race is irrelevant and wanting to reject that notion outright. It's not really one of those well-on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand kinds of debates. This is America, after all. We have some serious racial baggage. We have a hard time reconciling ourselves to the past and sometimes behave as if it has no bearing on the future.

Now some people want to look to one solitary black man to just erase the so-called race problem. Only in a country of eternal optimists and perpetual revisionists could such contradictions coexist. Call it the I-Love-Obama-thus-racism-no-longer-exists phenomenon. If only things were that simple.

Race matters in almost everything we do. It factors into where we choose to live, school our children and pray. It determines whom we hire -- or don't hire. It influences how we are viewed by police and treated by the criminal justice system. It grants some people access to better health care and denies others a high-quality public school education. Race mattered during Hurricane Katrina and during the O.J. Simpson trials. It mattered in Jena, La. It mattered to Rodney King, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo and countless other black men. It matters in whom we choose to love or hate, to honor or discredit, to revere or demonize. We make decisions based on race all the time, whether consciously or not, and we do so in ways both big and small.

Still, we owe ourselves some credit for the current efforts to deal with our race issues. Media coverage of race in the campaign has been heavy to the point of being ridiculous, but it has also prompted many Americans -- at least those outside the media-political bubble of Washington -- to have more honest conversations about race among themselves and with themselves. This can't be bad.

Nor is it bad that thousands of black voters turned out for Obama in the South Carolina Democratic primary. No doubt they find him inspiring -- and qualified. And, too, they probably like it that he's black. There's a feeling of kinship there. That's not racist; it's honest.

Were the large number of white men who voted for John Edwards in South Carolina also voting against Obama? Maybe. Did they judge Edwards to be best qualified and give him extra points for being white? Maybe. These are slippery-slope questions. Determining when support for one person over another crosses the line from honest differences to racist considerations is a tough call.

The "Race doesn't matter" crowd would probably disagree. When they chant it, they mean it. They don't qualify it with nuance. It would be more accurate, however, if they simply added "to me" at the end of the phrase: "Race doesn't matter to me."

It's a profound sentiment that meets head-on the question of why race should matter at all. In principle it should not, and that's why the young people who don't believe it matters are so admirable. Imagine their mantra sweeping the country on Super Tuesday and riding a wave until Election Day.

But neither their collective energy nor a million continuous chants could make their mantra true. Their candidate is neither "post-racial" nor "race neutral" or "colorless." He has not transcended race: The matter of whether such a thing is even possible is a question for another day. He is just an extraordinary black man, but a black man nonetheless, who happens to be running for president. The young, white people who support him happen to love him regardless of his race, much as many black people love him because of it.

The idealism of young people should not be underrated. They have a lot to teach us cynics, and they give us plenty of reason to hope. "Hope" for them is not a political prop; they seem to be plumbing its deeper meaning. For them in particular, Obama seems to have made hope cool and exquisitely tangible. That's why, instead of "Race doesn't matter," they should adopt "Hope matters" as their mantra. It implies a collective wish for a turning point in this country, a time when we resolve to accept, not pretend to erase, our inherent racial biases and look beyond them to find each other's humanity.

Maybe now is that time.

We can only hope.

Marjorie Valbrun, a journalist, lives in Washington. Her e-mail address ismval63@yahoo.com.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company