This piece in yesterday’s Washington Post by Charles Ogletree and Johanna Wald provides a revealing glimpse of what leftists — including President Obama and Shirley Sherrod, I suspect — really mean when they talk about getting beyond racism.
Ogletree (a long-time race man) and Wald use the Sherrod affair as their starting point. They claim that the incident demonstrates how “at the barest suggestion of race, we line up at opposite corners and start hurling accusations.” They thus pretend that race is the only issue as to which liberals and conservatives fail to exercise caution, or recognize nuance, when they clash.
From this silly premise, Ogletree and Wald call for a more thoughtful discussion of race. And, naturally, they attempt to define the parameters of a “thoughtful” discussion.
According to Ogletree and Wald, the key to a thoughtful discussion lies in a recognition of “structural racism.” The evidence they cite of such racism consists of unequal outcomes — blacks don’t do as well as whites in school, they end up in prision in disproportionate numbers, they don’t get the good jobs. Ogletree and Wald want us to “tone down the rhetoric on all sides,” and admit that the nation is plagued by racism.
But Ogletree and Wald are charitable. The structural racism they posit isn’t due to the overt racism of white gatekeepers, such as “doctors, nurses, police officiers, judges teachers, lawyers, city planners, and admission officers.” Rather these whites are engaging only in “implicit racism.”
The key, then, is for whites to acknowledge their biases and then to “dismantle” the “structures” that allegedly are producing the unequal outcomes. But since Ogletree and Wald infer these structures from the unequal outcomes, theirs is really a call for forcing equal outcomes in all important spheres of our society. The radicalism of this call could hardly be more obvious.
Ogletree and Wald are something like what Shelby Steele has called “challengers” — those like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who say, in effect, that whites are racist until they prove otherwise by conferring tangible benefits. Ogletree and Wald modify this formula slightly, claiming that the racism of whites is only “implicit” and placing much of the blame on “structures.” But deviation from the Jackson-Sharpton formula is mostly cosmetic, a means of issuing the familar racially radical challenge in a less hostile-sounding tone.
For me, the most interesting question is the extent to which President Obama shares Ogletree and Wald’s perspective. Obama began his presidential campaign as a “bargainer,” to use another of Shelby Steele’s categories. According to Steele, bargainers (think Oprah Winfrey or Bill Cosby) presume that whites aren’t racist, the bargain being that, by loving them in exchange, whites will show that the presumption is correct.
After Obama’s longstanding relationship with Rev. Wright was exposed, Obama became more of a challenger. In his famous speech about Wright, he admitted that his election alone would not satisfy the yearning for a post-racial America. To the contrary, he declared, that he has never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy. Obama was also clear that without understanding Wright’s views and taking seriously the complexity they reflect, America cannot get on with solving its other problems, such as health care and education.
To me, this sounds quite a bit like Ogletree-Wald. Obama stopped short of calling America racist. But he was clear that Wright was no crackpot and that, to the contrary, getting beyond our racial divisions requires taking some of what he said seriously. And getting beyond racism is closely related to conferring better outcomes in areas like health care and education.
Obama also stopped short of calling for a “dismantling of structures.” But now that he is in office, he is no longer bashful on this front.
It would be interesting to know which portions of the Ogletree-Wald piece, if any, Obama disagrees with. I think he agrees with substantially all of it. And I bet Shirley Sherrod does too.
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