Every white child in the United States comes to know that their path in life will be easier than that of black children, just as white Australian children come to know the same with respect to Aboriginal children. They discover this just as they discover which streets not to walk down or when not to knock on their parents’ door. Like some other things children learn, they also learn not to talk about it.
On 18 March this year, Senator Barack Obama delivered a considered and revelatory speech on race relations in the United States. That speech held the prospect for a continuing discussion on the complexities of race, one which has been set back by the presidential horserace. Race has become simply another factor, like the muddiness of the track, to be squabbled over by self-proclaimed experts.
The latest grist for punditry is the Bradley effect, a convenient, pseudo-scientific term. It explains how Obama could still lose the race, despite being ahead in national and key state polls, due to the contradictory presence of lingering racism and bashfulness over confessing it to anonymous pollsters. I will not belabour a discussion of the Bradley effect here — it has been described and disputed in an op-ed by Blair Levin, who worked on the Bradley campaign, as well as a recent column by Frank Rich, in the New York Times — save to note that white racism, the Bradley effect and other oversimplifications do not begin to describe the persistent and subtle influence of race in America.
Looking at race with some depth and nuance, it is possible to see how Obama’s race may be more of an electoral asset than a liability — because he has made it so.
White guilt is a phrase trotted out to explain the support of some whites for affirmative action policies that advantage or assist blacks. It is a complex, historically embedded concept that is used too bluntly, and with little understanding. It is not the guilt of culpability, which comes from personally wronging another.
White guilt is the straw-man strung up by John Howard to deny an apology to Aboriginal people. Howard rejected reconciliation "of the apologetic, shame-laden, guilt-ridden type," because he did not believe the present generation should bear the guilt for the policies of past generations.
Guilt, however, can take different forms. I may feel guilty because I inherit money from my father that he stole from another man. Despite my lack of culpability, my wrongful gain at another’s expense is a burden inherited by my conscience. In the United States, the stain of slavery is passed down through generations by race. As noted by Alexis de Tocqueville, "servitude is most fatally combined with the physical and permanent fact of difference in race … and race perpetuates memories of slavery." More recently, Obama, not himself a descendent of slaves, said of his wife, Michelle: "I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave-owners — an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters."
The inhumanity of slavery and other injustices heaped on the black community live on in the colour of their skin, inerasable to both blacks and whites. It is a living memory that reflects a continuing legacy of unequal education, unequal opportunity, and unequal rates of infant mortality, life expectancy and imprisonment.
The only way a group of people with a Christian morality could justify the enslavement of another group of people was to deny their humanity. As slavery came to an end and the souls of black Americans could no longer be denied, the weight of guilt and sin fell heavily on the white community. It would drive fear and hatred of Black Americans for generations.
In his novel, Native Son, Richard Wright articulated how the cycle of white guilt, fear and hate
manifested itself in 1930s Chicago: "of
all things, men do not like to feel that they are guilty of wrong … and seeing
no immediate solution … without too much cost to their lives and property, they
will kill that which evoked in them the condemning sense of guilt."
Distance and violence have been the two responses to that guilt. If the former was not secured by physical separation or social constructs, the latter would follow. Blacks were confined to slums and ghettos, and separated from whites by legal and social structures so that whites could deny their guilt. When whites were confronted, fear and hatred led to intimidation, brutality and murder.
Martin Luther King Jr understood that breaking the cycle of guilt, fear and hatred required a strategy of openness, non-violence and forgiveness. Openness brought racial injustice to light. Non-violence quelled white fear of retribution. Forgiveness disarmed the persistent trigger of white guilt. In Dr King’s words: "forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the cancelling of a debt… Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again."
As the condition of the black community improved, the nature of white racial consciousness evolved. Overt racism still exists, but it is confined to the margins. Violence is as exceptional as it is unacceptable, although distancing is still too prevalent. What we have now in America is two types of white racial consciousness: resentful and redemptive.
In Obama’s March speech, he deftly explained white resentment: "when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job … because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time." Paradoxically — although these surface concerns are real — beneath them lies the unacknowledged awareness of black disadvantage that stokes the fire of resentment as guilt once fuelled fear and hatred.
There is also a redemptive racial consciousness in the United States. There are whites who recognise and acknowledge the present day inequities stemming from past wrongs. That knowledge is a burden to them. They may seek to alleviate it through symbolic gestures such as voting for a Black presidential candidate. Obama, however, has taken his campaign beyond that easy appeal by reaching out to resentful white Americans as well.
Certain black figures become bridges across the racial divide that many whites want to cross. Barack Obama is such a figure. He understands that the way to overcome white resentment is to accept it, and not to add shame and scorn, which only fuels that resentment. As he says, "to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognising they are grounded in legitimate concerns — this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding."
Because Obama made the message of his campaign one of unity, he has become a path to unity, whereby white Americans can sooth their conscience or at least let go of their resentment. Yet the election of Obama is no panacea for race relations in the United States. It is one thing to vote for Obama, and another to welcome a black son-in-law or accept the loss of a job to a black competitor.
What does this mean for the presidential contest? At the end of the day, the green(back) will outweigh black or white in this election, as the economy dominates the voter’s concerns. Once the horserace of the election is over, hopefully the country can return to a more mature discussion of racial divisions in America, as part of an overall drive for unity. Vested in Obama is the hope and potential to be a President for all Americans.
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