It was a question I posed to white anti-racism activist and author Tim Wise, who was speaking in Charlotte, N.C., as he does to colleges and organizations across the country about the “structural and institutional” racism that hurts all Americans.
The week before the inauguration, he had just finished a speech before a friendly audience. He was “preaching to the choir” at a Food for Thought forum put together by Mecklenburg Ministries, an inter-faith, interracial, multi-cultural organization whose 100 or so member congregations represent more than a dozen faith traditions.
The hundreds that gave the author of “Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama” a standing ovation have already begun the dialogue between races that’s necessary because “the silence doesn’t get us anywhere,” as Wise said. You can’t have reconciliation unless you’ve had conciliation, he said. “You can’t reconcile that which has never been ‘conciled.’” Does the election, twice, of President Obama move the dialogue along? I asked.
“I don’t mean to be in any way cheeky or cynical. Although I’ve been accused of both, it’s not really my intent,” Wise said.
“I think what the election initially said was that when a really quite erudite and brilliant black man has the opportunity … a black man as erudite and brilliant as he is, as scholarly as he is, for a man like that, if he has a year and a half to interview for the job, which is what a campaign is, if you have a year to prove to people that you’re competent, you just might get the gig.”
The weird sort of ironic reality is it might be easier for America to elect Barack Obama to get that job than it is for a lot of other people of color just to get a job managing a department store. That seems absurd but it’s not. When you’re applying for the job in just a regular office setting or something you’ve got to impress one person or maybe two people who are harboring real, significant biases. You don’t get 20 million voters to override their biases.”
Barack Obama’s election certainly tells us something about the shifting culture. It couldn’t have happened 10 or 20 or 30-something years ago. So it’s not meaningless, and if John Lewis tells me it’s meaningful, I’ve got to say I’m in no position to correct him given the blood and the sweat and the tears that he’s shed. But I want to be cautious about what is says and doesn’t say.”
I worry sometimes that what we’ve done is we’ve shifted to what I call numbers, of white folks who find individual people of color with whom we really connect and who we really like and we will absolutely vote for and who we will support in every way shape or form but will still view them as exceptions to a generally negative rule.”
The fact that they carved out an exception for Barack Obama, the fact that they had made him in effect the Cliff Huxtable of American politics may be good for Obama and, depending on your perspective, great for the nation but it doesn’t tell us a lot about the larger white racial frame of the be society.”
It was one man’s response to what the fact of a President Obama may say about the promise of America and the cracks that still need healing.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3