On Culture

Edging (at Times Clumsily) Toward a Post-Racial America

Geraldine Ferraro said racial politics has fueled Barack Obama's campaign success.
Geraldine Ferraro said racial politics has fueled Barack Obama's campaign success. (Doug Demark Photography)
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By Robin Givhan
Sunday, March 16, 2008

We are supposed to be living in post-racial times: Black mayors such as Washington's Adrian Fenty and Newark's Cory Booker preside over predominantly black cities with a philosophy based on transcending differences. An African American candidate for president has won primaries and caucuses in overwhelmingly white states such as Iowa and Wyoming and is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. These men are not concentrating on racial uplift so much as on individual uplift.

We are so deep into these post-racial times, it seems, that Geraldine Ferraro suggested that being African American has become an advantage, at least in the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama. "A white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept," said Ferraro, a supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Obama's people got mad at the implication that racial politics was fueling his campaign. Then the pundits got into it. And then Ferraro hit the morning talk shows to let everyone know that she wasn't a racist. But just in time for the evening news, she resigned from her position in the Clinton campaign, which shouldn't even have been necessary because all she did was observe that as a culture we haven't so much transcended race as become enamored of it.

As Obama racks up delegates, even those who do not support him have made a mental note that this is a momentous occasion in this country's history. What makes it so compelling is directly related to race -- from the stereotypes that have been crushed to the facts of Obama's personal story. His race, coupled with the rest of his r¿sum¿, make him the candidate that he is. If we are ever to settle comfortably into a post-racial world, we'll have to come to grips with the idea that race matters in ways that can be enlightening, entertaining and inspiring. And that's not a bad thing.

Before politics became post-racial, the art world was post-black. In 2001, the Studio Museum in Harlem was the setting for an exhibition called "Freestyle." It was co-curated by Thelma Golden, who used the term "post-black" to describe a group of black artists -- average age 32 -- who were adamant about not being defined by their race or having their work viewed solely in the context of skin color. They were post-civil rights kids who were able to move beyond victimhood and the notion of race loyalty. They spoke as individuals who were black. They did not speak for a culture.

Politically, we want post-racial to be synonymous with race-blind. But in popular culture, artists don't ask audiences to ignore race, and they don't try to hide it. Instead, they are matter-of-fact about it. It's part of the complicated mishmash of identity. "Saturday Night Live" has Fred Armisen, who is white and Asian, playing Obama in skits because he captures certain tics and gestures and intonations that in total can be as identifying as race. The performance artists Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Jones regularly cross cultural, racial and gender lines in their work.

Obama has exuded some of that ease on the subject of race. In debates, he occasionally makes jokes that are based on racial differences, including references to his distant familial relationship to Dick Cheney.

In the meantime, on each election night, the media race to check the exit polls to find out how much of the black vote or the white vote or the Latino vote he has received. Did he win the old white guys? Or just the young white guys? But do we even know what the right breakdown should be? We can't stop using old models to explain an unfamiliar present. Indeed, we can't even stop playing the race card in a pinch. And it keeps proving its value.

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is black, was caught up in a sex scandal earlier this year. He dallied with his chief of staff, who resigned once their affair became public. Kilpatrick is accused of lying under oath and costing the cash-strapped city $9 million in legal fees in an effort to cover up his affair. In January, Kilpatrick offered a televised apology, with his wife, Carlita, by his side, her hair styled into a salon-fresh bouffant.

As the details of the story continued to emerge in the Detroit Free Press, both the mayor and his more vocal supporters in this predominantly black city raised the issue of race, suggesting that he was targeted for investigation because of the color of his skin. The Man, he said, was out to bring him down. Yet, despite calls for his resignation, he remains in office.

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer wasn't so lucky, or so pugnacious. Last week, after being linked to a high-priced prostitution ring, he went through the rituals of contrition. He made a public statement of regret, apologizing to his family and describing the matter as private. His wife, Silda, stood next to him in her pretty periwinkle jacket and tasteful pearls.

Spitzer said he was sorry in a lawyer-vetted manner that was devoid of any facts detailing the nature of the wrongdoing. He hunkered down with advisers and hired a fancy lawyer. But there was no race card in his deck. Barely 48 hours later, he resigned.

Tomorrow, his lieutenant governor steps into the lead job. That's David Paterson, 53, who has been described as a consensus builder. He would be New York's first African American governor. He may not be post-racial or post-black. He may merely be a black man -- neither symbolic nor aggrieved. And that would be a relief.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company