Fifty years ago, a white journalist named John Howard Griffin undertook a startling experiment. In order to better understand the plight of African-Americans in the Deep South, he artificially changed the pigment of his skin to black and experienced racism from the “other side.” The book he later wrote about his experiences, Black Like Me (the phrase was lifted from a Langston Hughes poem), was a stunning success at a time when there was still tremendous curiosity, and plenty of animosity, between the races. This was 1961, after all, and the South was still largely a segregated society. But Griffin’s most riveting conclusion was not that segregation still ruled the day. He could see that, of course, even as a white man. It was the small, subtle, daily indignities that he became victim to — slurs, innuendos, dismissive looks, suspicions; in short, racism that didn’t shout, but whispered.
Half a century has produced a wealth of progress, and today an African-American sits in the Oval Office. There is no minimizing this achievement and how far we have come as a nation. There is also no denying that the subtle vibrations of racism — the kinds of indignities that John Howard Griffin noticed — are still prevalent. A few weeks into the Barack Obama presidency, we received a lesson in this when the Henry Louis Gates controversy erupted. You will remember it as the episode where the Harvard professor was accosted outside his own Cambridge, Massachusetts, home by a policeman who suspected that Gates was breaking in. The officer may or may not have assumed that because he was a black man in a white neighborhood, Gates must be an intruder. That was up for debate. But the affair erupted into a national story, ending with the famous “beer summit” in which the officer and Gates came to the White House to have a dialogue with the President about race and the overtones that can inform criminal investigations. We all looked upon it as a “teachable moment” and moved on.
Nice, perhaps, but certainly naive. No beer is strong enough to move us as a people beyond this issue, and no conversation has yet succeeded in bridging what remains a wide divide. Indeed, African-Americans like me are convinced that we see, hear and understand some things a bit differently than our white counterparts, and that they — Republican and Democrat — simply do not get that. Can any of us forget then Senator Joe Biden describing Barack Obama in 2007 as “…the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”? I have no doubt the future vice president bore no racial animus, yet many blacks and whites viewed his comment through very different prisms. Thankfully, the future president, adopting the conciliatory tone that should define all of our national debates, put his arm around Biden’s shoulder and said, “He didn’t mean it.” Another teachable moment.
I thought about all of this again when in a recent piece for CNN, The New Yorker‘s legal affairs writer, Jeffrey Toobin, argued that the current manner of conflict in our political debate is a “feature” of our democracy and not a “flaw.” No doubt some people read that and said, how interesting, incivility is really a sign of our political health! But I read it and said, “No, it’s not.” While some manner of debate is indeed healthy, incivility — at least some of the incivility we now see in Washington — feels to me like a by-product of the subtle racism that too many still indulge. Our politics has included fierce argument since Adams and Jefferson, and the Bush years will not be remembered for excessive hand-holding across the aisle. But there is something different in the language adopted by opponents of this president. The vitriol that sets the tone for today’s dialogue is, in part, a backlash to the very fact of Obama’s presidency, reflecting some nascent yet primitive fear that the man who now occupies the Big House – our House – doesn’t look like us, isn’t one of us, and now we must move heaven and earth to get him out.
When the Senate Minority Leader proclaims that his number one priority – the single-most important job he has in that exalted position, to the exclusion of his constitutional duties – is to see to it that Obama is denied a second term; when code phrases like “he’s not one of us” or “he’s really a Muslim” or “he doesn’t understand ‘our’ values” are employed over and over again as a way to appeal to baser human qualities (qualities incompatible with the ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution); and when we hear people at Tea Party rallies saying things like “I want my country back!” while holding a poster that features the President of the United States dressed as a jungle savage with a bone through his nose, and the leaders of that party remain unapologetic; I react to these expressions differently than some others apparently do. I hear them as flaws, not features, of democratic government. Big, ugly flaws that harken to an even uglier past. As Michael Tomasky asked in The Guardian, does anyone really think there would have been a “birther controversy” if “Barack Obama were white and named Bart Oberstar?”
I hope I’m wrong. I really do. But then I open The Washington Post to read about Governor Rick Perry’s Paint Creek, Texas, hunting camp and the dark poetry of the image is just too rich not to acknowledge. The camp, apparently, was once known as “Niggerhead,” not an uncommon title for a geographical outcropping back when few cared about the insensitivity of such a name, but most of these offensive titles were changed by the early 1960s. In response to the Post story, Gov. Perry explained that shortly after his parents leased the property back in “1983 or 1984” he discovered a rock there with the title “Niggerhead” and told his parents, who then had the word painted over. Okay, and maybe the paint faded, as there have been some reports that the rock was still visibly displaying that word within the past few years (reporters looking for it now have not been able to find it). But even that is less disturbing than the fact that, as the Post reported it, locals in Paint Creek still use the term “Niggerhead” to refer to the property and many simply didn’t see a problem with that. “It’s just a name,” said county judge David Davis. Not to me, of course, and not to just about every other African-American in this country.
Robust, vibrant debate and disagreement must remain the hallmarks — indeed, the primary features — of our democracy. But the incivility that has infected and now defines our dialogue, and which becomes more shrill as we enter another election cycle, casts a stain upon what another great African-American poet, James Weldon Johnson, called “the hope that the present has brought us.”
We are better than that.
Tim Lewis, Counsel at the law firm Schnader Harrison Segal and Lewis, is a former judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and a board member of the Peter Jennings Project for Journalists and the Constitution.