Hope Full-term

Posted by Melvin Bray on December 22nd, 2008 filed in Home-Training

I finally made print! Today I received my complimentary, advanced copy of Christian Century for a contribution I made to the article “What’s Changed?” (December 30, 2008 Vol. 125, No. 26, p. 20). I was in quite prestigious company—sandwiched between leaders of this and that. It was quite an honor to be invited to comment on the election. Thank you Christian Century! Thank you, thank you, thank you and… May your circulation increase.

The following are my unedited comments…

One of the defining questions for an Obama-era America, pregnant with possibility, will be: What does it mean to be ‘post-racial’? In fact, the term ‘post-racial’ has such potential for misinterpretation that Newark, NJ, mayor, Cory Booker, disallowed it on MSNBC’s election night coverage:

“I reject the idea of a post-racial America. I want to luxuriate in the racial deliciousness of our country: the Italian-Americans, the Irish-Americans, the Mexican-Americans. I mean, that’s what makes America great. We are a nation that celebrates racial diversity. We’re not Norway; we’re not South Korea; we are the United States of America. The story of America is one of bringing such differences together to manifest a united set of ideals—not a united culture, not a united language, not a united religion, but a united set of ideals. That was what made America dramatic when it was founded, the first country of its kind in humanity. So I reject that. I want to celebrate all of America: its richness, its diversity, its deliciousness.”

I so reside where Mayor Booker is coming from. “God forbid if we ever get to a point where we ‘transcend our race'” (Cory Booker on BigThink.com). Nevertheless, that is not what I believe ‘post-racial’ means—transcendence would be ‘non-racial,’ a well-meaning sociological nonentity—although it may be exactly what a lot of heretofore-exclusively-privileged persons hope ‘post-racial’ means. I get the distinct impression that many want it to mean ‘over and done with race.’ However, as Robert Jensen reminds us in his book The Heart of Whiteness, “race is a fiction we must never accept; race is a fact we must never forget,” and the election of a person of color to the highest office in the land at a time of profound uncertainty, quelled only by hope, did not change this one bit.

If it is to follow the pattern of other such ‘post-‘ constructs, ‘post-racial’ most appropriately identifies those who have suffered through the crucible of race and come out the other side determined to live/trust beyond race—still in visceral awareness of its worst and unequivocal opposition to even the slightest of its indignities. Long before such ‘post-‘ language became en vogue, Cornel West, one of the great American post-modern thinkers, wrote about the dangers of race as the sum of identity in his seminal work Race Matters. West advocates the replacement of “racial reasoning” with a “moral reasoning” that engages beyond the arguments of the past, that obliterates the categories of left-right-center or conservative-liberal and that seems to be descriptive of Obama’s decentralized post-racial cadre.

I am convinced that in order to be healing and generative our future conversations must be rooted in the reciprocal admissions inherent to anything post-racial:

    1—That there are those who have historically been disadvantaged in our fair country, and consequently…
    2—There are those who have been historically advantaged in our fair country.

Neither admission can be up for debate anymore, and we must recognize the existence of either is decidedly unfair and immoral. We must commit ourselves to rectifying both wherever either may be found and can’t settle for the miscarriage of just doing better from this point forward. “Equal rights” to a piece of pie means little when the entire pie was divided up before one was even allowed to sit down at the table.

As if all that weren’t difficult enough, here’s the gut-check. If ‘post-racial’ is to denote an actual repudiation of the discriminatory use of race, it must also become the catch-all concept for the refutation of any act of civil discrimination—in similitude to the way people of color sometimes use ‘racism’ to connote any abuse of power for which there does not exist a specific term. (Everything is not about race, but race has been a fitting proxy for the intractable abuses of power that have plagued American life.) If our Obama-inspired post-racial impulses don’t demand from us unequivocal justice (and from Christians, grace – generosity of spirit – as well) in all facets of democratic life—gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, etc—then we might as well throw the term out with the bath water as (a kingdom-come) hope stillborn.

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4 Responses to “Hope Full-term”

  1. Aerin Says:

    LOVE LOVE LOVE the analogy of the pie. And probably baking another pie is not going to make everything better, either.

    My soul has really been wrestling with this one. I understand the not-further-marginalizing the marginalized groups by having them tell us what reparations to make, but I am so at a loss as to what reparations should look like.

    I’m sorry, that’s a confession, not a complaint. I guess I feel free enough to ramble here 🙂

  2. Melvin Bray Says:

    feel free, sista, to ramble or whatever. we have to wrestle with it if we are going to do better now than we have done in the past.

  3. Melvin Bray Says:

    aerin, perhaps it looks somewhat like what several persons have done for me as a writer over the past few years–inviting me to be a part, giving me access, extending to me their credibility (or as brothas might say, ‘putting me down’).

    it’s all about teaching others the secret handshakes that are so intuitive to you that you don’t recognize them as secret. but you have to be aware that as one who brings my otherness to the table i’m likely going to modify the handshake somewhat in order to make it mine (and not yours on loan). so those of you who were at the party before i got there have to work to eliminate the inherent penalties against my expressions of originality (my otherness). its tough, because immediately one is faced with the question of what modifications/alterations/changes to the handshake are beyond the pale. it’s not something you can decide or come to understand by yourself; you have to arrive at it in the thickness of relationship.

    i teach it to my kids (my own and my students) with the expression “make room for others.” i want them to learn to appreciate people’s otherness as just as valid as their own.

  4. Phillip Says:

    Diversity is emerging as the most important public virtue, and I think that the “united set of ideals” could use a good dose of diversity and non-conformity, also.

    Why not instead embrace, as a non-fattening substitute, “a diverse set of ideals?” Various ideals from all the sects and philosophies of humanity should be all given equal weight in our laws and public discourse.

    In fact, why not change the name of our country from the “United States” to the “Diverse States” or maybe the “United States of Diversity?”

    The “United States of Conformity and Intolerance” has had its chance, and that foolish union has failed the hopes of the many diverse peoples inhabiting America.

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