This past weekend there was a” Harlem Book Fair 2014” in which various panelists discussed various topics. One topic was exploring the writings and thoughts of the author James Baldwin. One panelist, a professor, said that he had recently been in China on a foreign exchange program in which he conducted a one week seminar for Chinese students. During one discussion, the professor said that one Chinese student made the most eye-opening and poignant statement he has ever heard: “Without race American would have no meaning.” What this student said is so thought-provokingly deep that it is almost impossible to know where to begin to analyze exactly what she meant.
Right now, talking head are abuzz after Attorney General Holder’s recent statements that there is a lot of animus toward President Obama because of his race. What Holder said is not new. Many people believe that from the first day that President Obama took office that a segment of Americans would oppose him, and therefore anything he could do as President, primarily because of his race. There are also many who believe that there is a very conservative “core” of Americans who have a mission to destroy this president—to tear him down so badly that his presidential legacy will be one that will characterize his two-term presidency as “inept,” “failed,” “deeply flawed,” “anti-American,” and whatever other negative connotations can be conjured up. Anyone who is willing to be intellectually honest cannot deny this sentiment. There are some people in America who believe that only white people should hold elected office especially in the South. This is a deeply held “Southern tradition.”
Nowhere else on planet earth is race such a hot topic as in America. Even in the Middle East, which is a hotbed of turmoil right now, race is not an issue. Ethnicity and religion may be relevant issues, but only as ethnicity and religion have factored into power, power sharing, and corruption. Race was indeed an issue in apartheid South Africa, but the issue of race was front and center because of the wholesale denial of human rights to the majority black population. That too was a question of power, oppression, and wealth sharing of natural resources. But in America, race is front and center as a “core issue” in the constitutional and social fabric of this country. And this is what the Chinese student was referring to with the statement about a meaningless America without race.
Let’s start with this hypothetical–what if President Obama were white? How much more bipartisan cooperation could have coalesced around the myriad issues facing this country to find solutions to America’s crumbling infrastructure, America’s gun violence, America’s drug addiction problem, America’s veteran homeless problem, America’s energy problem, America’s wealth disparity problem, America’s educational system issues –if the President were white and not the target of virulent opposition because of his race. What if race could be removed as an issue? How much more progress could have already been achieved during the President’s six years in office if oppositional issues of race hatred were removed from the table? Without race the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States would have become the “cause for celebration” that it became. Without race, President Obama’s presidency not be playing itself out under a 24/7 microscope.
Let’s look at another topic. From its inception, this country expressly stated that black people were not citizens. The U. S. Supreme Court once ruled that black people were not and could not be citizens and “had not rights that a white man was bound to respect.” What if racial hatred had not crippled the socio-economic progress of 40 million black people and justice and fairness had prevailed? Just imagine how much less poverty, misery, homelessness, crime, educational deprivation could have been overcome had race not played a primary role in keeping black Americans from true equality? Just think about the loss of human and American societal progress because of race hatred.
During the Harlem Book Fair one person made this statement which was equally as poignant as the young Chinese student. He said that America needed to get rid of “white” as a racial designation because there is no “white race.” First of all he said there is no one on earth whose skin color matches white copy paper. So, if “white” is removed as a racial designation, what would that mean for the historical, blanket safety net designed to advance people who have pink skin? Let me add another matter—what if to call a person “white” carried the same negative connotation as calling someone a “n?” What if every time someone claimed to be “white” it meant the same thing as referring to themselves using the “N” word?
I am in agreement with the young Chinese student about America and its meaningfulness without race. Every year, often many times a year, studies and reports are released that describe a wide range of characteristics—by race. Race is used to describe whose academic scores are the highest or lowest; who is in prison; who is getting help from the government, and an array of crime statistics—all by racial designation. Suppose we stopped all this “race identifications” and instead used other criteria? What if other factors were used, such as who lives in which zip code, which income bracket, which part of a city, which states, which counties, which electoral districts? What if we focused on these racially neutral indicators, and, instead of the usual response of “Oh, well,” (they are of a certain race) set out to find solutions that would address the underlying problem-regardless of race? What if America had not been so preoccupied with race over the past 250 years and had worked for the common good and advancement of all its citizens regardless of race. What if race were truly irrelevant in America? How much more meaning could this country have as a “beacon of light” for the world if its history had not been so marred and crippled by a preoccupation with race? But, since America has developed as a “racially conscious” country, maybe America’s meaning in hindsight will be the civil rights struggle that black Americans set in motion that transmigrated to societies all over the world to set other oppressed people free. Maybe this is the real meaning of America’s history of race consciousness.
Copyright 2014 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.