The Paradox of Race in the U.S.

The paradox of race in the U.S.: In order to become a culture in which race does not matter, race must always matter.

Due this coming June, my first granddaughter will be born into this world a bi-racial child during the second term of the first bi-racial president of the U.S.

The symbolic power of that coincidence is, I think, significant, but the realities of the U.S.—I regret to add—far outweigh that symbolism (consider that Obama is popularly referred to as “Black,” and not bi-racial, and how that designation reflects not race, but racism).

It is 2014, and the U.S. suffers from a cultural blindness to the lingering scars of racism, sexism, and classism. U.S. mass incarceration disproportionately destroys the lives of African American males: White males outnumber African American males in the U.S. about 6 to 1, yet prisons hold African American males at a 6 to 1 ratio over White males. African Americans and Whites use recreational drugs at about the same rates, as well, but African Americans are overwhelmingly and disproportionately targeted, arrested, and imprisoned for that drug use.

The realities of inequity for women in the U.S. are disturbingly parallel.

However, Zak Cheney-Rice’s National Geographic Concludes What Americans Will Look Like in 2050, and It’s Beautiful details that the U.S. my granddaughter will experience is, in fact, increasingly multi-racial:

The Wall Street Journal reported a few years back that 15% of new marriages in 2010 were between individuals of different races. It’s unclear whether they’ve included same-sex unions in the count, but as currently stated, this number is more than double what it was 25 years ago. The proportion of intermarriages also varied by race, with “9% of whites, 17% of blacks, 26% of Hispanics and 28% of Asians [marrying] outside their ethnic or racial group.” Interracial unions now account for 8.4% of all marriages in the U.S. (please see the images and charts)

As the number of bi-racial and multi-racial children increase in the U.S., we may find that the pervasive blindness to the -isms that deform our culture is replaced by a will to confront as well as end those -isms.

But, what keeps those -isms alive, I think, is the wrong goal—a call for a post-racial U.S.

Humans will always necessarily be, individually and collectively, defined by the coincidences of race, gender, and sexuality—those qualities that we do not choose. And children (as well as adults) will always be defined by the class each is born into through no decision or action of that individual.

What we should be seeking, then, is a post-racism society, not a post-racial society; a post-sexism society, a post-classism society, a post-homophobic, post-heteronormative society.

Much of literature is the artist’s effort to remove blinders from a people.

In American literature, a recurring theme is that the American Dream is a lie (or at best, far from being realized)—even though many in the U.S. remain capable of reading, celebrating, and then completely missing that point with key works such as The Great Gatsby.

Aging and quite likely crumbling under the weight of something like Alzheimer’s, Willy Loman becomes convinced that he literally is worth more dead than alive—because he loses his ability to earn a living but holds a life insurance policy.

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a damning work of drama and even more directly challenging the American Dream than Fitzgerald’s modern classic.

But for all the critical insight found in both Salesman and Gatsby, the two works also leave out a great deal—a great deal about the interplay among race, class, gender, and that American Dream as a lie.

However, Lorraine Hansberry returns to the American Dream in A Raisin in the Sun in order to hold up to the U.S. and the world what Salesman and Gatsby mostly ignore.

Walter Younger, like Willy Loman, faces the weight of a “dream deferred,” personifying Langston Hughes’s questions in “Harlem.”

Few if any works of literature surpass Hansberry’s masterful dramatization of race, class, gender, and the “heavy load” that is not just a “dream deferred” but a dream that is reserved for only some (white) people.

Both Willy Loman and Walter Younger are tragic figures in the modernist sense; and these two men share a burden of reaching for and believing in a dream promised that turns out to be a mirage.

But Walter suffers exponentially, not because of his race, but because of racism—how the people with power respond to his race.

In a post-racial world, Walter being African American would be erased, and with that, part of his Being would be erased. The quest for a post-racial world maintains a racialized gaze on Walter, and not the agents of racism.

Walter does not suffer oppression because of his race; he suffers oppression because of racism.

And that, I think, is one of the many nuanced messages of a surprisingly optimistic play (much like Alice Walker’s A Color Purple) that asks audiences to see and even recognize—not ignore—race, class, and gender in the context of social realities that are themselves what must be changed. Not the people who are the consequences of their race, gender, and class.

Having just co-edited a volume on James Baldwin, I cannot imagine Baldwin calling for a post-racial U.S., one in which we pretend race doesn’t exist. I can imagine Baldwin informing anyone willing to listen that the problem remaining in the U.S. is not anyone’s race, but the eye of the beholder.

In the recently published Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems by Baldwin, the opening poem, “Staggerlee wonders,” begins:

I always wonder
what they think the niggers are doing
while they, the pink and alabaster pragmatists,
are containing
Russia
and defining and re-defining and re-aligning
China,
nobly restraining themselves, meanwhile,
from blowing up that earth
which they have already
blasphemed into dung

And I hear Baldwin, and I imagine him saying we must see each other fully in order to be no longer blinded by our -isms.

My granddaughter will be born a bi-racial child in the U.S. where the half of her which is African American will be the default for calling her “Black” and where women still earn about 3/4s what men do for the same labor.

She is likely to feel the dehumanizing realities about her own worth that send Willy to suicide. She is likely to share the frustrations Beneatha and Ruth Younger personify.

Those realities give me pause, sadden me. And I share with Walter a good deal of anger.

In another modern classic of American drama, Thornton Wilder’s Our TownEmily grows from childhood to falling in love to marriage and to her own too-early death. In the final act, Emily views her life in replay from beyond and exclaims: “I can’t look at everything hard enough.”

She then turns to the Stage Manager and asks, distraught: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager replies, “No—Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”

My hope lies in our ability to “look at everything hard enough.”

To pay attention—not to ignore, not to pretend in the way that calling for a post-racial U.S. is pretending.

The paradox of race in the U.S.: In order to become a culture in which race does not matter, race must always matter.

5 comments

  1. Pingback: The Paradox of Race in the U.S. – @ THE CHALK FACE
  2. Peter Smyth

    Biologically, genetically “race” does not exist; unlike gender. Placing peoples in categories is cultural. Even the DNA makers turn up surprises in our lineages.

    To me, that makes the racial categories we’ve created to elevate and degrade certain groups even more abhorrent.

    So I think you’re right, we do have to address “race” and the effects. But we have to acknowledge that it’s a cultural, not genetic construct.

  3. Willy Nilly

    I was in deep thought on this subject and you suddenly made it tangible and voiced a message not unlike my own contemplation. My first grand daughter will soon be seven, in July, the day before Independence Day. I have concluded my search for ancestry and DNA. My Grand Daughter is descendant from the royalty of France and England. She has in her genes the nobility of the Korean elite. She also can reach back to the African plains and claim her place in her tribe. She is a polyglot of language, culture, social standing and more. Her direct ancestry brought the idea of religious freedom to America long before a Pilgrim ate his or her first turkey. Her kin slaved in the cotton fields of the old south, responsible as much for the growth of a great nation as any Revolutionary militiaman. Her blood coursed in the Asian culture where great societies lived 5000 years ago, before Europeans began to farm, write, and worship as nations. Yet, her skin and hair condemn her before her beauty and intellect can unfold, before her DNA can compel her to greatness. Her eons long journey to this moment is unknown to the world that would scorn her. She is neither white, nor Asian. She is not black. She is the future. She is my greatest hope and all the love I can invest. She has a little sister and a pure Caucasian cousin, my Grand Son. All treasures that can’t be measured. I pray their futures are not determined by the ignorance of the past.

  4. Pingback: No Country for Young Children of Color | the becoming radical

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