A Real Dialogue on Race

As the Democratic primary drags on, the media has increasingly made a habit of taking misguided one-liners from campaign advisers and turning those molehills into mountains. I have a feeling I'm not the only one tempted to mute the television and crank that brilliant Avenue Q song, "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." The song goes, "If we all could just admit that we are racist a little bit even though we all know that it's wrong, maybe it would help us get along."

The hysteria over recent comments says more about our own inner demons than it does about these campaign advisers. We live in a half-changed nation with respect to race. Many of us still possess half-changed hearts. It is unproductive to kill the messengers of that hard truth, because avoiding the conversation doesn't reduce racism, sexism, or classism. Our country's secret desire to cling to these "–isms" won't loosen until we turn the light on, coax the monsters out from under the bed, and have a down-and-dirty conversation about what we're so afraid of.

As of late, the media, in partnership with the self-important public, has tended toward hysteria at the first whiff of a controversial comment. Samantha Power, a Pulitzer Prize-winning expert on genocide and Obama campaign adviser, was shamed mercilessly for her, yes, unacceptable characterization of Hillary Clinton as "a monster." Power knew an apology was in order, but she should have been pressed to go further, to explore her dehumanizing comment in light of the fact that her life has been dedicated to humanizing people. But her quick departure from the Obama campaign and the media response -- The Daily News slapped a sexy picture of her on its cover with a giant headline reading "PRETTY DUMB" -- did no one any good.

The American public could have benefited from hearing such a wise and normally compassionate human rights expert explore her characterization of Clinton. Was Power, in a moment of frustration, falling into the sexist mindset she has dedicated much of her career to ending? Do we each -- particularly women, particularly feminists -- have the capacity to grasp for "the master's tools" in moments of desperation? How can we rise above these instincts? By shaming Power into silence, we have lost an opportunity to learn something valuable, and maybe even life-changing, from her.

Likewise, Geraldine Ferraro's banishment from the Clinton campaign, following her claim that Obama had received special treatment because he was male and black, led to similarly counterproductive hysteria. Ferraro's divisive comments were put on a loop without the context; she was discussing, more broadly, the status of women and people of color in politics. (She drew a comparison to her own history, contending that if she had not been a woman Walter Mondale would not have chosen her as his running mate in 1984.) In any case, it certainly wasn't wise or accurate to suggest that being black had been a boon for her campaign's competitor.

But why weren't Ferraro's reductive comments, like Power's, seen as an opportunity to deepen the conversation? It seems she has something valuable to say about tipping points and identity politics, something that we could all learn from. Instead the potential dialogue about race and gender and privilege was ended before it even began. Instead, another public figure was shamed into silence.

Why had the most exciting presidential race in decades been reduced to an unsophisticated game of pin the racism on the scapegoat?

Enter Barack Obama and his game-obliterating speech last Tuesday. In response to yet another media-manufactured witch hunt -- perhaps more accurately characterized as a lynching -- Fox and others went after Obama's long time pastor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright. Obama rejected the alarmist messages in Wright's sermons (in which he referred to the United States as the "U.S. of K.K.K. A." and said the Sept. 11 attacks were a result of corrupt American foreign policy), but he didn't reject the man -- his longtime friend and spiritual leader.

Instead of taking the bait and continuing the electoral groveling, Obama took a stand. He took the risk of saying something complex about race in America, about our faith, about our often unspoken anger. (If only he'd extended the analysis to attack sexism and delved deeper into classism.) He explained: "[Wright] contains within him the contradictions -- the good and the bad -- of the community that he has served diligently for so many years. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother."

Now this is what elections should be about -- truth-telling, bridge-building, brazenly identifying our complicated histories and the challenges that lie ahead, both outside and inside of ourselves.

Obama was doing something that most of us, at some point in our lives, are forced to do when we face racism. Hearing Obama, I was reminded of the moment I brought home some photographs that I'd taken in my first college art class, and my grandmother, born on a Nebraska farm and raised in an age of outright segregation, asked, "Who's that?" of my new boyfriend (a Brooklyn-born Caribbean-American kid). "That's Nik, the one I've been telling you about," I responded. She immediately zoned in on something in the periphery of the picture and cooed, "Oh, raisins, I'm glad you're eating healthy." Translation: I'm not ready for this.

Instead of huffing away and distancing myself from my, yes, racist grandmother, I gave her a little time and insisted she meet Nik the first time he came home with me. We sat in a cheesy (in all ways) pizza restaurant, drank giant sodas, and talked. My grandmother saw that Nik was kind and decent. Nik graciously managed to see the same in her. The whole world changed.

On a macro level, this is what Obama was advocating in his beautiful speech. Don't label folks racist and banish them from public debate. Challenge them to think more deeply, be more conscious and less divisive, interact with and humanize the "other."

Instead, we feign shock at the comments of these candidates' friends and advisers. It makes us feel better because, in doing so, we distance ourselves from racism, sexism, and classism. Like the teenage girl who binges and purges a few times a month, but rationalizes it as relatively healthy in comparison to the skeletal, anorexic girl featured on Entertainment Tonight, we point fingers and smugly ignore our underpaid nannies, the continuing tradition of legacy admissions to our alma mater, and the victims of the subprime mortgage crisis. We're not calling candidates monsters or claiming tokenism or alleging that America asked for it, so we're not racist or sexist or classist. We're okay. In other words, our condemnation of these smart, if compulsive and hyperbolic figures, is more about us than them. We are banishing the candidates' advisers so we can deny the ways in which they echo moldy messages in our own hearts and minds.

I would love to see Ferraro, Power, and Wright in a room together, hashing out the residual "-isms" that make all of our lives more flat and our nation's policies less enlightened. Their reductive thinking doesn't have to produce reductive reactions. If we can be brave and face complexity, if we can see the prejudice in ourselves and in our loved ones as unacceptable and still deserving of compassionate exorcism, then this media circus could actually be transformed into a nationwide, agnostic revival meeting.