Maxwell: The enduring dilemma of race

A congressional hearing and a Virginia controversy remind us that race still confounds us.
Published March 1
Updated March 1

“Race – it is America’s rawest nerve and most enduring dilemma. From birth to death, race is with us, defining, dividing, distorting.” Sig Gissler wrote this insight during the summer of 1994. He was a professor of journalism at Columbia University and administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes.

When I first read Gissler’s words years ago, I was impressed. Never had I encountered the racial observations of anyone, black or white, that were not defensive, blaming or recriminatory.

I add this to Gissler’s insight: From birth to death, race is one of the most personal of human experiences for victims, perpetrators and witnesses.

As a black male in a majority white society, I live race unlike a white person. I am acutely aware that my race constitutes my master status, the social condition that is the primary identifying characteristic of an individual.

My skin color, my most visible characteristic, is the most important piece of data about me. This condition is inescapable. Only fools pretend otherwise.

Race consciousness naturally enables and produces discrimination, from the most benign to the most horrific. Paradoxically, because race is so familiar, we assume we understand it. Some of us even take it for granted. Others of us willfully practice it.

The truth is that race confounds our understanding precisely because, besides being ever-present, it is subconsciously lived by the victim and by the perpetrator alike, making it a shroud of complex and often conflicting sentiments and behaviors.

Many of us fail to realize that just as race harms the perpetrator and the victim, it indicts all of us in the same way, joining us at the hip and leading us away from enlightenment.

In the United States, race is destiny, a reality that explains, in part, why when race comes up in conversation, many of us begin to, among other reactions, smirk, roll our eyes, sigh or stalk from the room.

While most of us view ourselves as being decent, honorable and ethical, the acknowledgment of our own racism shames us and reminds us – if we are honest – that for all our claims of believing in equality, we are a nation of racial separateness and violence.

Two current events remind me of Gissler’s insight that race is America’s “rawest nerve” and “most enduring dilemma.”

The most recent event came during this week’s televised House Oversight and Reform Committee testimony, when Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., attempted to insulate President Donald Trump from Michael Cohen’s accusation that Trump is a racist. Cohen was Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and “fixer.”

Besides taking umbrage at Cohen, Meadows brought out Lynne Patton, an African-American business associate of Trump who now works for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She stood behind Meadows, alternately smiling and looking serious.

Meadows intended to show that Trump cannot be a racist because a black woman works in his administration. Inexplicably, Meadows said that Patton, the “daughter of a man born in Birmingham,” would not work for a racist. Trump, therefore, cannot be a racist.

Guffaws broke loose in the committee room, and outrage flooded Twitter. How, detractors wondered, could Meadows, a hard-core Barack Obama birther conspirator, be so racially tone deaf? Many said “trotting out” Patton was itself an act of racism, and I agree.

Then there is the continuing agony of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. Someone discovered that the governor’s 1984 medical school yearbook page features a photo of a student – said to be Northam – in blackface and another student in a KKK hood.

Northam initially apologized for wearing blackface but later said he was not the fellow in the picture. Demands for his resignation came from many quarters, mostly from blacks and skittish white Democrats.

Genuinely contrite, Northam has refused to resign. He wants to keep his job, and I think he should because the incident happened long ago and he has redeemed himself with all he has done for black people. Most blacks acknowledge that he is a good leader.

He has apologized ad nauseam to no avail. He even tried to organize a “reconciliation tour” at historically black colleges and universities. Student leaders scoffed and told him to stay away, which he did.

Although nearly 40 years have passed since Northam’s yearbook photo was published, the wrong of blackface has no statute of limitations. No forgiveness. No reconciliation.