No Distraction

THINKING FOR OURSELVES
No Distraction
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, June 28, 2009

Most Americans knew that the election of Barack Obama would alter the racial landscape in this country. Yet the mainstream media seems unable to grasp the depth of the shifting grounds of dialogue about race that are emerging.

Locked into old ways of thinking, the mainstream media wondered if candidate Obama was “too black” for white voters or “not black enough” for black voters. It delighted in replaying the gaffs of Rev. Jesse Jackson, the comments of the Clintons, and ultimately the preaching of Reverend Wright.

After Obama secured the nomination, the media warned of the Bradley effect, saying white voters lied to pollsters about race. The media never really helped us wrestle with the fact that Obama won victory after victory in states with limited minority populations. Nor did it provide much coverage of the extraordinary efforts of white union leadership to engage white workers in conversations about race and racism.

It didn’t use its power to extend the insights about race Obama shared in his speech in Philadelphia in March of 2008.

This past week I found myself returning to it as the controversy over Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge police department dominated much of the media. Sometimes their confrontation has been dismissed as a trivial incident; sometimes it has been portrayed as symbolic of the state of Black men in America, sometimes as an example of bias or insight.

Had a reporter not asked President Obama what he thought of the incident, and President Obama not replied as honestly as he did, the whole issue might have disappeared from the headlines.

Now much of the media wants to portray the controversy as a “distraction” to the real issues facing the country, even as it continues to report and comment on it.

But on a deeper level, this latest discussion of the realities of race in America is part of what will be a recurring, sustained and healthy new conversation. While it began in the primary campaign the day Barack Obama announced he would seek the presidency, it has continued to weave into public discussion in important ways.

Certainly the nomination and confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor brought an important dimension to the discussion as we were all invited to consider how identity, personal experiences, culture and gender influence our perceptions. Now the incident with Professor Gates has brought the question of police and Black America on to center stage.

These conversations are not distractions. They are the unfinished business that President Obama spoke about in his speech on race more than a year ago in Philadelphia. Then Obama said wisely, “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” To do so, he said, would “simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.”

He said, “The comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through—a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs. Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, ‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact it isn’t even past.’”

In ways unexpected and unpredictable, messy and imperfect, we as a people are finding our way to a new understanding of who we have been, who we are, and who we might yet become. This is no distraction.

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