The entirely too convenient conversation about race

In retrospect, a lot of people should have read then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama’s March 2008 speech repudiating many of his long-time pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s views more closely. In it, Obama acknowledged a history of racial injustice, but also endorsed a view[1] that Bill Cosby would take up, that Blacks are in some ways complicit in their own suffering,[2] a view that echoes the Moynihan report of 1965 that, at the very least, failed to adequately listen to Blacks themselves.[3] Obama rejected what he called

a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”[4]

There is much to unpack in just that, but a lot of Obama’s speech gave voice to the resentments Blacks and whites hold against each other, some of which are distractions from a loss of economic opportunity that affects, he argued, people of all races. Amidst that, however, he also said,[5]

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.[6]

That gave me, and I think others as well, hope that we would finally have an earnest conversation about race. It didn’t take long for Obama’s fine words to start unraveling. A month later, Obama would repudiate Wright and still refuse to concede the hard cold truths that Wright rightly pointed to.[7] There was much to unpack, there, as well. But as propaganda, Obama’s speeches enabled his—especially white—supporters to feel good about themselves.

Before Obama had even been inaugurated, a BART police officer shot and killed Oscar Grant, who was face-down on a BART platform, in the back. A vigorous public outcry that recalled a legacy of Black uprising dating back to the 1960s[8] would ultimately lead to an indictment and, probably much too leniently, a conviction of the officer for involuntary manslaughter.

Obama was barely six months into his term when Cambridge police arrested Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who on returning from a trip to China had found his door jammed and had to force his way into his own home. Gates was arrested,[9] and Obama said that police had “acted stupidly,”[10] only to recant the following day.[11]

Race has seemed to lie behind the killing of a number of Black males since, including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and 12-year old Tamir Rice. In each of these cases, the perpetrator was either acquitted or unindicted.

And Obama’s hyperbolic opposition has been, beyond doubt, at least partially motivated by race.[12]

The consequence of all this is that we are indeed having a conversation about race. But too often it has been framed as racist police—and they are racist—versus Blacks. It has accompanied a narrative that associates “terrorism” with Islam and another narrative that is unwavering in its support for Israel against Palestinians. In all these cases, and a few more, the conversation too easily reduces to “us” versus “them.” While such binary thinking indeed lies behind racism, and sexism, and classism, and any of a number of other -isms,[13] we are not exploring the thinking itself. The conversation we are having is superficial. It is entirely too convenient.

In failing to acknowledge the demons within, I would dare to suggest, all, or at least many, of us, we can too easily say those police, or those Blacks, or those white supremacists, or those Muslims, or those Zionists, or those Palestinians, or those “undeserving” poor, or those men, or those women. We regard ourselves as spectators, and we exonerate ourselves.

In my previous writing, I have pointed to how elites use those divisions of race, class, and gender to divide us, and to maintain their entirely undeserved hegemony over us.[14] I have forgotten what may be the most important division of all: the entirely unwarranted division between us spectators and those bigots.

  1. [1]Huffington Post, “Obama Race Speech: Read The Full Text,” November 17, 2008,
  2. [2]Associated Press, “Cosby berates blacks for abuse, failure as parents,” NBC News, July 2, 2004,
  3. [3]Charles Lemert, “Will the Center Hold? 1963-1979,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 375-376.
  4. [4]Huffington Post, “Obama Race Speech: Read The Full Text,” November 17, 2008,
  5. [5]Huffington Post, “Obama Race Speech: Read The Full Text,” November 17, 2008,
  6. [6]Huffington Post, “Obama Race Speech: Read The Full Text,” November 17, 2008,
  7. [7]National Public Radio, “Transcript: Obama’s Speech on Rev. Wright,” April 29, 2008,
  8. [8]Fredrick Harris, “Policing the Police,” review of Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin, London Review of Books 35, no. 12 (June 20, 2013),
  9. [9]Abby Goodnough, “Harvard Professor Jailed; Officer Is Accused of Bias,” New York Times,
  10. [10]Katharine Q. Seelye, “Obama Wades Into a Volatile Racial Issue,” New York Times, July 23, 2009,
  11. [11]Associated Press, “Obama: Poor choice of words in scholar’s arrest,” NBC News, July 24, 2009,
  12. [12]Morris Dees, “Attorney General Holder is right: Racial animus plays role in Obama opposition,” Southern Poverty Law Center, July 16, 2014,; Ginger Gibson, “Powell: GOP has ‘a dark vein of intolerance’,” Politico, January 13, 2013,; Alex Koppelman, “Now Bill Cosby weighs in on Carter’s side of race issue,” Salon, September 16, 2009,; Ewen MacAskill, “Jimmy Carter: Animosity towards Barack Obama is due to racism,” Guardian, September 16, 2009,; David Maraniss, “What drives the Obama doubters and haters?” Washington Post, July 27, 2012,; Tony Pugh, “There’s no denying Obama’s race plays a role in protests,” McClatchy, January 12, 2012,
  13. [13]Simone de Beauvoir, “Women as Other,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 345-347.
  14. [14]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works’,” March 15, 2012,

2 thoughts on “The entirely too convenient conversation about race

  • February 8, 2015 at 8:18 am

    This post is an example of the view of race dynamics from within the u.s.
    It lacks the information, detail and definition regarding race that the education system, judicial/law enforcement, governance designers have had for a very long time; even many if not most or all of the ground level r1b’s are on some level plainly aware of the situation.
    Notice the only available words for race are simply white, or black and the assumption that they are actually white (or black for that matter) in the context attributed.

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