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This week’s issue of Newsweek features a compelling article about the evolution of race relations at Princeton University (“Black in the Age of Obama”). By looking at the experiences of two African American Princeton students from the turbulent 1960s and comparing them to the college experiences of their daughters some thirty-odd years later, the story highlights the progress made as well as the new struggles faced by students of color on the Princeton campus in what the article calls the “the cutting edge of ‘post-racial’ America, where race isn’t supposed to matter anymore. Except when it does.”

The article is only four pages long, but it’s full of challenging ideas. For instance, there’s the subplot running throughout the narrative that questions the existence of a “post-racial America.” Does an Obama presidency really mean race is now off the table? From the article:

Linked in the public consciousness to Barack Obama, the term “post-racial” has now expanded to encompass the era his election has ushered in. But in the real world, post-racialism is something of a mirage. Detroit is not post-racial. Neither is Congress, nor Wall Street, nor prime-time TV. Black people pretty much refuse to utter the word, Obama included. For most Americans, it’s little more than a convenient cable-news catchphrase.

But the heart of the narrative reveals how two students from the late ’60s, Henry Kennedy (’70) and Jerome Davis (’71), had to endure the racial tensions of the day, and the limited choices they had for survival. “With fewer than 20 African-Americans per class, ‘fitting in’ wasn’t an option,” the article explains. “Instead, undergraduates like Davis and Kennedy gravitated toward one of two roles: activist or invisible man.” In many ways, of course, that same dilemma remains today. 

However, for Kennedy’s and Davis’s daughters, Alex and Kamille, the racial dynamic has been complicated by the fact that racism, or racialization, is no longer as clearcut as it was back in the days of brazen prejudice and legislated segregation. As the article’s authors observe, today “at post-racial, meritocratic Princeton, it’s often impossible to say where color ends and exclusivity begins.” Which, consequently, leads to the current brand of double consciousness that I address in my book–that is, the 21st-century angst of not knowing when something (a comment, a look, a policy) is racially motivated or when it isn’t. Here’s perhaps the article’s most penetrating observation—it’s “money shot,” if you will:

In a post-racial bubble, it’s no longer the initial incident that makes being black uncomfortable; when everyone has “gotten over” race, any controversy can be easily explained away as a joke, or a misunderstanding, or ordinary, colorblind Ivy League exclusivity. But while Henry Kennedy and Jerome Davis had an outlet for their concerns, Alex and Kamille don’t. Even worse, they have the uncomfortable burden of deciding whether they should even be concerned to begin with. As a result, they, like many young, elite African-Americans, can feel boxed in. When injustices do arise, there’s pressure to brush them aside. To do otherwise would be to think too clearly in racial terms—to clash too openly with post-racial expectations. Ignoring them entirely, though, might look like a retreat from community obligations. Everyone’s a loser and everyone shares the guilt.

Though this article spotlights the experiences of African Americans at Princeton, it’s really a case study for the larger issue of race in America today. How we’ve “come a long way,” but how the cost of that progress has been a confusion about our new reality and a tendency to believe that we’ve tackled the problem, when in fact we’ve yet to have ongoing honest communication across racial and cultural lines (Hello, Eric Holder!). What’s more, our current racial progress has beget a new brand of prejudice and racial resentment that threatens to erect even larger barriers to true reconciliation (just check out this news report from today’s Chicago Tribune and look, particularly, at the reader comments). 

“Race” articles like this Newsweek report are helpful in showing us yet another aspect of the cultural landscape today, but they often wind up leaving the reader discouraged or pessimistic about the notion that we’ll ever really move beyond the pain and frustration of race relations in eras past. What the article doesn’t mention is the reality of God’s grace and the power he gives us to heal, forgive, and build bridges across our current chasms. But, of course, first we must agree that there are still chasms.

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Sociologist and Divided by Faith author Michael Emerson has an interesting article posted at UrbanFaith.com regarding the issue of economic redistribution. Barack Obama took a lot of heat from his opponents during the election over this matter, as they labeled him and his policies (raising taxes on the wealthy and giving relief to the poor and middle class) as being socialist in nature. Here, Emerson examines the issue in light of early church practices and the noted work of John Perkins.

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Alright, I’m just gonna go ahead and post on this. I’ve been trying to resist, since it seems all I ever blog about anymore is Obama and race. But the cultural Zeitgeist is what it is.

Earlier this week, Politico ran a series of articles on the role of race in the current presidential battle. The pieces covered all the now-familiar terrain, speculating on how big of a role race (or racism) could play in the upcoming election. For me, the most interesting piece was a report on “How Obama Quietly Targets Blacks.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of Obama’s campaign has been the delicate balance he must strike between reaching white voters and black voters. The unspoken understanding has long been that if Obama does too much to appeal to the African American community, he’d scare off many in the white community. While I think this is silly and perhaps insulting to many white voters who have no problem with Obama’s skin color, I also think it’s true a lot of the time. Again, the Zeitgeist is what it is.

And so, for the majority of his campaign, Obama has found it necessary to treat the African American community the same way a bashful eighth-grader does that pretty girl in English class—glancing at her only in quick snatches, lest his secret crush become a topic of public discussion among all the middle-schoolers. Here’s one of that Politico article’s most riveting quotes:

“What [Obama] has done is he’s shunned black voters — but he knows that they know that he’s black. And he knows that they know in our communities we have a certain feeling that he’s got to do that to get those white votes,” said Kevin Wardally, a New York City political consultant who worked for Hillary Rodham Clinton. “We inherently believe that what he’s doing he has to do — he has to not be in Harlem to get those white votes.” 

As I read that, I wondered how some white readers would interpret this statement. Would it seem to them that Obama is being sneaky or disingenuous? Would they be able to recognize the sad irony in all of this? The thing is, white politicians can often be very upfront about appealing to the cultural sensibilities of white voters. For instance, when Sarah Palin talks about Obama not feeling that “our great country” is perfect enough, something tells me she’s not thinking of non-whites when she says “our.” If an African American politician like Obama were as brazen with black voters, he wouldn’t stand a chance.

I confess that I was intrigued by these Politico reports. But to tell you the truth, I think these types of articles are getting old. Every day brings another examination of the role of race. Will the “Bradley Effect” rob Barack Obama of the presidential race, even though the polls keep putting him well ahead? Will the “Bubba Vote” save John McCain? Did McCain mean something sinister during the debate when he said, “That One”? Are Sarah Palin’s frequent slams against Obama before mostly white audiences (“This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America”) racial code for something else?

I could give you my opinion, but what difference would it really make? Who really cares anymore? Are any of us truly ready to see the argument from the other side’s perspective? Some will call it racism. Some will call it down-and-dirty campaigning. It is what it is. And depending on your personal experience, your political affiliation, your cultural background, and perhaps the color of your skin, you’re going to have a different opinion about the meaning of it all. Honestly, at the end of the day, none of that really matters.

What does matter, however, is how we’re treating our fellow citizens, how we’re treating our brothers and sisters. Sometimes I almost think it would be best to put real life on hold during the high theater of this phase of the election season, when emotions are high and partisan rhetoric is running at a fever pitch. In these latter days of the race, there’s usually no room for banal values like respect, compassion, and grace. Right now, it’s all about getting our guy (or gal) elected.

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With the collapse of the U.S. financial system, all other news tends to pale in comparison. Still, sticking with the main theme of this blog, here are a few of the interesting news items and blog posts that I stumbled across over the past week.

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Hi there. I’m just back from Orlando, where I led a couple of workshops at the annual Peacemaker Ministries conference. I was one of the keynote speakers at last year’s conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they actually invited me back. Go figure. If you’re not familiar with Peacemaker Ministries, I encourage you to check them out. It’s a wonderful organization that assists churches in biblical conflict resolution. Thousands of churches and individual believers around the world have benefited from the Peacemakers’ work.

At the conference, I had the honor of meeting Thabiti Anyabwile, author of the bold and much-discussed book The Decline of African American Theology. Pastor Anyabwile delivered a powerful keynote address on “The Danger and Delight of Forgiveness.” In his opening address, Peacemaker Ministries founder Ken Sande said, “One of the supreme ways for us to reflect God’s glory is to make peace with those who have offended us or whom we have offended.” Imagine an entire ministry exclusively devoted to helping folks resolve conflict and experience grace and forgiveness. 

On the way to Florida, I was able to catch up on some of my magazine reading. Have I ever mentioned here that Philip Yancey is one of my vocational heroes? I had the privilege of working with him awhile back when I was an editor with Christianity Today. Philip’s example as a journalist and as a promoter of grace have had an immense influence on my career and life. Against the backdrop of another hotly contested presidential election that exposes our nation’s deep divisions, I’m challenged and encouraged by his latest column in CT.

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From a new Associated Press report:

Deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Barack Obama the White House if the election is close, according to an AP-Yahoo News poll that found one-third of white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks — many calling them “lazy,” “violent,” responsible for their own troubles.

The poll, conducted with Stanford University, suggests that the percentage of voters who may turn away from Obama because of his race could easily be larger than the final difference between the candidates in 2004 — about two and one-half percentage points.

Certainly, Republican John McCain has his own obstacles: He’s an ally of an unpopular president and would be the nation’s oldest first-term president. But Obama faces this: 40 percent of all white Americans hold at least a partly negative view toward blacks, and that includes many Democrats and independents.

Read the full article here. Also, Glenn Loury and John McWhorter continue their engrossing conversation about the election over at Bloggingheads.tv. These two scholars continue to offer some of the most intelligent, balanced, and unpredictable commentary on the political and social implications of the presidential race.

Update, Sept. 21:The Race Discussion Obama Didn’t Want,” Politico.com’s analysis of the AP-Yahoo poll.

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Tonight, exactly 45 years after Dr. King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech, Barack Obama will officially accept the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. Quite heady stuff, given our nation’s bumpy history on the race-relations front. In commemoration, here are a few of the thought-provoking articles and reports I’ve encountered over the past week.

  • Does King+45=Obama? Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page connects the historic March on Washington to Barack Obama’s historic campaign and reflects on what it teaches Americans about themselves. 
  • Dr. King Goes to Washington. NPR’s Steve Innskeep interviews MLK biographer Taylor Branch and civil rights activist Roger Wilkins about that fateful day in which King flipped the script and declared, “I have a dream!”
  • From Washington to Denver. In this New York Times report by Michael Powell, veterans of the 1963 March on Washington who are in Denver this week for the Democratic convention reflect on the trials of the past and the hopes of the future.
  • Will Obama’s Rise Endanger Civil Rights? New York Times reporter Rachel Swarns surveys the ambivalent mood among some in the African American community regarding Barack Obama’s success. Awhile back, I posted about “Why White Supremacists Like Obama,” but this article examines what might be considered the opposite: Why some black civil rights leaders are dubious about an Obama presidency.
  • ObamaKids. Finally, in this essay from New York magazine, scholar and author John McWhorter speculates about how an Obama presidency could transform race relations in America simply through the symbolic signals it sends. He writes, “[I]f Obama becomes president, there will be a shift in the conception of race in this country that neither side in the culture wars can control. It’s all about youth. Think about it. If Obama is elected to two terms, an entire generation of 10-year-olds will come of age having been barely aware of anyone other than a black man in the White House.”

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