Race Talk

keeping up with the "national conversation on race"

It wasn’t supposed to be like this

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In Philadelphia in March of 2008, Barack Obama’s superb speech on race impressively seemed to create an opportunity for Americans to talk differently about racial matters. The speech and the intense national coverage it generated suggested that a fundamental change was occurring—instead of being a furtive, almost illicit subject, referenced largely by innuendo and manipulated via “code words,” race became a direct object of discussion. Specifically, Obama sought to engage whites by offering them a respite, of sorts, from blanket charges of racism by refusing to label the lingering “resentments of white Americans” as “misguided or even racist without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns.” That he eventually was elected, too, even more strongly indicated we were entering a new stage in our “national conversation on race.” Perhaps we were at last becoming “post-racial.” But the story of Shirley Sherrod suggests very little has changed after all.

Obama’s Philadelphia speech offered more than just a new position on ongoing efforts to understand the role of racism in U.S. society; it modeled a way to talk about race—calmly, in measured and considered fashion. But that model was nowhere to be seen in the administration’s reaction to drama around Shirley Sherrod. The knee-jerk reaction to fire her—unconscionably supported initially by the NAACP—demonstrated, rather, everything that was wrong about the ways Americans were used to talking about race. That is, do whatever it takes to keep race from coming up at all; and, if it does, respond with severity to this breach of public decorum by casting out the transgressor. The administration’s response aimed strictly to restore racial etiquette, rather than regarding race as something we have to calmly consider and think about.

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Written by jhartiganj

July 22, 2010 at 7:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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