There is, I think, a reason for that. “Black” and “white” are equally artificial, but black fairly quickly took on the contours of a real culture. The people to whom it was applied, after all, were required to live in close proximity to one another, sharing the same often-squalid circumstances, the same mistreatment and oppression, conditions that no degree of personal excellence or achievement could mitigate or help them escape. These pressures shaped them, drew them together.
“White,” on the other hand, was held together only by the single condition of being not black, being a member of the advantaged class. It has little existence apart from that.
As illustration, try a mind experiment. If someone says to you that she enjoys black literature, what do you interpret her to be saying? Likely that she reads Ernest Gaines, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker. But what is “white literature?” What is “white music?” What is “white art?” How often, in media, does one even see “white” used — physical descriptions of crime suspects aside — where it is not positioned as a counterpoint to “black?”
This is the thing that is often misunderstood by people who try to impute some sinister double standard to things like the Miss Black America Pageant. “If there was a Miss White America Pageant,” they are fond of saying, “black people would have a fit.”
But there is a Miss Italia USA pageant. And a Miss German America pageant. And a Little Miss Irish Princess contest. And a Miss Russian California.
So the problem isn’t black people having a fit. It is white people recognizing, if only viscerally and instinctively, that “white” is a problematic word to be avoided when possible.
What, then, do we do with this history? Where does it take us as the future dawns?
Some would say it takes us nowhere. Some would say the best thing we can do with race is leave it alone. If I had a dollar for every person who has ever told me that talking about race causes racism, or even half that much for every person who has ever told me the “hyphenated Americanism” of African Americans causes racism, I’d never have to buy another Powerball ticket in life.
But such people are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. People embrace hyphenated Americanism because no other Americanism has been available to them. And if we stopped talking about race tomorrow, racism would persist; all we would lose is the language by which we frame and confront it.
You don’t end race by silence, nor do you end it by blaming it on the people it has been used against.
Again, race persists because race is useful. If you want to end race, stop allowing race to be useful. Consider some of the political debates of the recent past and note how issues with no obvious racial component soon end up being about race.
“I think you see it with health care now,” says the historian, Roediger. “Very quickly, something that’s kind of a fundamental human right, it’ll end up being talked about as if it were a racialized entitlement. The achievement of the right in making the word ‘welfare,’ which means good, sound like a bad thing, is so connected with the way they can pull on race.”
But Roediger does sense that a change is afoot, that perhaps the utility of race has peaked. The election, he says, showed “that this kind of Republican refrain of ‘food stamp president’ doesn’t work quite as well when so many white people are on food stamps and know people who they know are trying to get jobs and can’t get jobs.”
As a result, he says, the GOP, which has, for generations been able to “take advantage of race,” now faces a race problem of its own. “I think there are fewer whites who respond to these kind of dog whistle, coded appeals, partly because they have misery in their own families, partly because anti-racism has made some progress.”
There is no such thing as black people.
Except, of course, that there is — even if we have to use what might be dubbed the Justice Potter Stewart standard to define them.
Race is the stupidest idea in history. It is also, arguably, the most powerful. It determines who goes to jail and who goes to college, who gets loans and who gets rejections, who gets the job and who gets the unemployment check. It determines the life you live and the assumptions that are made about you.
For example, Gregory Howard Williams, the man who did not know he was “black” until he was 10, once told the story of how, when he became dean of his law school, a white woman congratulated him on this well-deserved achievement. “Then,” said Williams, “she found out that I was black, and her first response — not to me, but to someone else — was, ‘Did he get the job because he was black?’ When she looked at me and assumed I was white, she assumed that I was qualified for the job. When she discovered I was black, she assumed that I was unqualified for the job.”
Then there is Walter White, the “Negro” with blond hair and blue eyes, who was, as a child, cornered in his house with his father, a mail carrier, by a white mob intent on violence. “There’s where that nigger mail carrier lives!” they cried. “Let’s burn it down! It’s too nice for a nigger to live in!”
Back in 2000, a group of scientists announced that, after mapping the genetic codes of five people, self-identified as African American, Caucasian, Asian and Hispanic, they had been unable to tell them apart. As one researcher put it, “The concept of race has no scientific basis.”
That same week, I was in New York City where I stood on 44th Street with my hand raised, watching empty cab after empty cab pass me by. The irony was pointed. Science could not define “black,” but a New York City cab driver certainly could.
This is the reality to which our history delivers us, one in which these artificial designations — “black,” “white,” “Asian,” etc. — are considered to have all these inborn markers for intelligence, criminality, athleticism, honesty, cleanliness, and we accept it without question, accept it like sunshine and air, as a thing that simply is. And it seems beyond us to look into the face of that other person who sits on the other side of that artificial designation and see reflected in his or her eyes, our own tears, our own laughter, our own self.
A century and a half ago Tuesday, the first Republican president issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. Except that, as most historians will tell you, it didn’t actually free anybody; it applied only to slaves in states like Florida and Mississippi, which were then in rebellion and no longer recognized U.S. authority, while ignoring those in states like Maryland and Kentucky, which remained in the Union. As the movie Lincoln shows, it actually took the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery.
But the one thing Abraham Lincoln’s document did do was challenge a nation’s understanding of its fundamental social order, its comprehension of the way things were and were meant to be. At a time when the very humanity of “black” people was in controversy and any suggestion that they might actually be equal to whites was met with scornful laughter, this homely country lawyer put the idea of freedom on the table and forced the nation for the very first time to grapple with that which it had previously accepted without question, like sunshine and air.
Getting the nation to think seriously about the concept of black people, free, was, as much as anything, a triumph of imagination.
One hundred fifty years later, getting the nation to understand that there is no such thing as black people will require a similar jolt to hidebound thinking. If and when it comes, perhaps a nation that once freed itself from slavery will finally free itself from race, as well.