Someone emailed a short and unexceptional essay by a professor at the Martin Luther King Institute at Stanford. It begins by quoting James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” :
A vast amount of energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror.
And then the piece goes on about how Jeremiah Wright will force us to address “the reality“, with itals for emphasis, of race relations in America.– a subject, the author claims, America is “consumed” with.
Baldwin was trying to write hard and honest, as did his white contemporaries (Podhoretz, Mailer, Updike among others) in grappling with what was once felt to be this country’s most vital subject. But doesn’t this all now seem as dated as a “Bonanza” rerun? I am old enough to to have experienced “white anguish” about how I was perceived by black Americans, to have spent countless hours in earnest debate over whether “revolution” was necessary to purge America of its racism, to have experienced shock at hearing black students at my university proclaiming loudly and publicly what seemed to me absolute nonsense about the institution, to have lived in New York City in the late eighties and early nineties, when any almost serious political discussion got into race, and when crime and the fear of it threatened, or so it seemed , to empty the city of its middle classes.
And how exhausted this topic seems now. White people don’t care about it anymore. They may pretend to, a little. They regret the poverty and social disorganization that reigns in much of black America. They are happy to live in a society where blacks play key and highly visible roles. But the subject of race bores them. They don’t puzzle over racial inequalities (on NBA rosters or university physics departments), they accept them. They don’t feel racial guilt. The sentiments, the “anguish”, Baldwin speaks of, are as distant and anachronistic to them as the burning of witches.
How has this happened? First a degree of racial peace, evident since the mid 1990’s. Secondly immigration, which has made America’s racial mix far more complicated, while smoothing the edges of black-white disparities. Third, the recognition that America has more pressing and difficult issues to confront (economic decline, Iraq, etc.) than anything Al Sharpton might pontificate about.
Barack Obama seemed to realize this, and regardless of his own long term interest in “race and inheritance” has campaigned quite effectively as a (sort of) black guy who didn’t talk about race very much. At the moment his campaign is being harassed by black race men who have made comfortable livings talking about race and little else. What Jeremiah Wright may not be able accomplish, Al Sharpton is also attempting, grandiloquently leaking to the NY Post that he has accused Obama of “grandstanding in front of white people.” Sharpton and Wright need to play off Obama in order to maintain their own relevance; without him, hardly anyone would even pretend to take them seriously. What power they have is negative–to try to drag Obama back and down. At that, they may well succeed.