Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson makes two major claims in this stimulating op-ed piece in the New York Times. First, he suggests that racism has changed its shape without losing its power. This means that a black president must never address the race issue directly.
Patterson understands the historical roots of American racism as well as any living American scholar. Here’s his mini-lecture on the subject:
We became this way because of the peculiar tragedies and triumphs of our past. Race and racism scar all advanced nations, but America is peculiar because slavery thrived internally and race became a defining feature of personal identity.
Slavery was quintessentially an institution of exclusion: the slave first and foremost was someone who did not belong to and had no claims on the public order, nor any legitimate private existence, since both were appropriated by the slaveholder. The Act of Emancipation abolished only the first part of slavery, the master’s ownership; far from removing the concept of the ex-slave as someone who did not belong, it reinforced it. The nightmare of the Jim Crow era then extended and reinforced the public slavery of black Americans right up through the middle of the 20th century.
At the same time, the status of blacks as permanent outsiders made whiteness a treasured personal attribute in a manner inconceivable to Europeans. Whiteness had no real meaning to pre-immigration Swedes or Irishmen because they were all white. But it became meaningful the moment they landed in America, where it was eagerly embraced as a free cultural resource in assimilating to the white republic. In America race had the same significance as gender and age as defining qualities of personhood.
The civil rights movement opened up new opportunities for educated people of color by abolishing “the lingering public culture of slavery”, but while black people have made great strides in the entertainment, athletic and political fields, the social segregation in America has actually deepened. African Americans are still perceived to be “culturally different”, Patterson writes, and “In the disciplined cultural spaces of marriages, homes, neighborhoods, schools and churches, these same differences become the source of Apollonian dread.”
Social isolation means that white Americans have a hard time grasping the individuality of black Americans. As a result, the pathologies of the few are attributed to the many. Although the relationship between social pathology and bad public policy is simply assumed in the academic community, a black president must never appear to be making excuses for absentee dads and street-hardened thugs if he wants white votes.
I’m not sure if Patterson is trying to describe the president’s thinking in this op-ed, or if he is telling Obama how he ought to think. Maybe he’s doing both. Obama, Patterson suggests, must never lecture white America about race. In the wake of the Jeremiah Wright controversy, Obama had to speak out to keep the race issue from derailing his candidacy. But since entering the White House, he has made only one foray into racial politics (his remarks about the Gates-Crowley affair) and Patterson sees that as an unmitigated disaster.
Therefore, the professor says, America’s first black president “will not be leading any national conversations on race, convinced as he must be that they exacerbate rather than illuminate.”
Patterson seems to agree with this stark assessment.
Are white Americans so ignorant and reflexively defensive that they can’t engage in an intelligent give-and-take on the subject of race?
So progressive analysts seem to believe. So it has always been. The NAACP was horrified by Martin Luther King’s practice of non-violent direct action because the strategy invited a violent white backlash. King persisted because he knew the sheer pathology of the typical white reaction to marches, buoycotts and sit-ins exposed the irrational hatred at the heart of racist public policy.
Similarly, the Freedom Rides of 1961 received negative reviews from the mainstream press. It was generally assumed that anyone foolish enough to sit in the front section of a bus in Alabama or Mississippi had only themselves to blame if they received a brutal beating. But every Freedom Rider sent from Jackson to the notorious Parchman prison in the Mississippi Delta weakened the position of Southern politicians. Ultimately, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy pressured the Interstate Commerce Commission into changing the law.
Only after non-violent and inter-racial strategies were abandoned did a conservative backlash against civil rights take hold in America. For an entire decade, the conflict between civil rights and states rights shaped the way Americans thought about the past and the present. The living narratives unleashed by non-violent direct action seized white America by the throat. The strategy was daring, dangerous and uniquely effective. Civil rights activists created a social crisis in America and waited for the truth to surface.
The narrative strategy Friends of Justice employs is rooted in the early civil rights movement. By taking hold of the narrative surrounding actual criminal cases we spark an intense conversation about race and justice. Initially, public officials ignore us. When that doesn’t work they attempt try to spin the story in their own favor. In the resulting clash of narratives the truth ultimately rises to the surface. Not everybody sees it, of course. Some folks remain convinced that Tom Coleman made good cases in Tulia or that the nooses hanging from a tree in Jena held no racial significance. But Jena changed the way school administrators think across America, Tulia led to widespread reforms and the Colomb case (though it gained less publicity than Jena and Tulia) exposed fundamental flaws in federal conspiracy law.
Orlando Patterson hopes Barack Obama can “quietly” reform the criminal justice system. Not by himself, he can’t. Our punitive justice system was shaped by tough-on-crime politicians exploiting and feeding public fears at the top of their lungs. There was nothing subtle or “quiet” about this process. Divisive and damaging narratives about crack babies and inner city thugs built the present system and only healing justice narratives can take it apart.
Conservative politicians could afford to be speak loudly because they reflected the zeitgeist. White people were angry, afraid and in the majority. Progressive leaders must wait for somebody else to change the tenor of the conversation, but if everyone is quiet nothing will change.
White skin is no barrier to reflection and repentance. Given the right environment, all people can learn. But there will be nothing quiet about the process. “You shall know the truth,” Jesus tells us, “and the truth shall set you free.” Politically nuanced fudge phrases are good for winning elections but they will never reveal truth or expose lies.
Orlando Patterson is right about one thing: a sitting president can’t be the standard-bearer for a twenty-first century civil rights movement. Barack Obama shouldn’t take the lead in the conversation about race and justice–but he has already changed the context in which that conversation unfolds. It’s up to the rest of us to speak the loud truth without apology.