Almost a year after Barrack Obama was elected president the debate about what his being the nation’s first biracial president means rages on. Simplifying and generalizing the arguments (always a precarious thing to do): some say it signifies a step beyond race to some place where we do not have to worry about it, where race has nothing to do with how we see and judge people; others admit the importance of Obama’s election, but also speak of the continued racism that people of color face and to statistics about the disproportionate number of people of color living in poverty, failing in our schools, suffering from toxins in their neighborhoods, sitting in prison, and generally dealing with the very real effects of institutional and systemic racism in our society.
In recent weeks the debate was inflamed by the arrest, in his own home, of noted scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who publicly asserted that he had been the victim of racial profiling. The arresting officer denied the idea and refused to apologize, saying he had no reason to do so. The president weighed in; the papers and talk shows are having a field day. Predictably and revealingly, in a poll, about 3/4 of African-Americans said they thought race was a factor in the arrest; 2/3 of whites said it wasn’t; it is the privilege of the over-class to ignore the world in which the under-class lives.
There is hardly a better moment to read Cornell West’s 1993 classic Race Matters. In essays entitled “Nihilism in Black America,” “Beyond Affirmative Action: Equality and Identity,” “Black Sexuality: The Taboo Subject,” and more, West incisively and profoundly analyzes racism in the U.S. His carefully constructed prose elucidates complex ideas and stimulates further thought. He speaks truth to power in a way that is both provocative and obvious, frequently making me wonder why I hadn’t seen his point before that moment.
Among many, the idea that stands out for me at the moment is that African-Americans are intrinsically part of our national culture. They’ve been on the continent almost as long as white people. Our society has evolved with the contributions of both black and white people. To the extent that there is a “white” culture and a “black” culture (categories that clearly include a great deal of variety and individuality within them), they have evolved together, contributing to one another in both many, many ways. African-Americans are as “American” as the rest of us.
It is obvious to me that, as the title to this book suggests, race still matters in the U.S. and around the world. The sooner that white people in the U.S. accept and publicly acknowledge this reality, the sooner we will be able to take true steps to equality.