What we (don't) talk about when we (don't) talk about race

October 04, 2012|By Lionel Foster

If you haven't done so already, you should stop right now and read a piece by another young journalist from Baltimore, "Fear of a Black President," the September cover story by The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates. I'm serious. It's really good. Here's a paragraph break so that you know where to pick this up.

Welcome back. Now as you'll recall, Mr. Coates points out the irony of America's first black president barely mentioning the subject of race at all.

It's certainly an issue for other people.

As Mr. Coates writes, one in four Americans doesn't believe Barack Obama was born in this country. Even after he produced his birth certificate, so-called "birthers" still insist he is ineligible to be president. If Mr. Obama were white, I don't think an Arizona governor supporting a racially motivated immigration law would put her finger in his face, or that a Southern congressman would shout, "You lie!" during a nationally televised speech before a joint session of Congress. But both of these things happened.

Why doesn't the president fight back?

"After Obama won," writes Mr. Coates, "the longed-for post-racial moment did not arrive; on the contrary, racism intensified. At rallies for the nascent Tea Party, people held signs saying things like Obama Plans White Slavery." If President Obama cannot defend himself from blatantly bigoted attacks such as this without facing a high price at the polls, discussing the ways race affects the lives of millions who do not have a Secret Service detail might require an unfathomable amount of political capital.

But those of us who live in Baltimore should not be surprised by this. Baltimore is the fifth-largest majority-African-American city in the country and the second-oldest. The mayor is black. The City Council president is black. If there are places where African-Americans can speak openly about some of the struggles that are unique to our communities, Baltimore should be one of them — but whatever color you are, in public at least, here there's mostly silence.

Because we don't talk about race, we agree that there are far too many murders in this city but can't admit that a few within that grim annual total matter much more than others. Our most resonant homicide stories tend to feature white victims.

Because we don't talk about race, Baltimore faces the prospect of a new jail, a facility for children charged as adults, filled disproportionately by black youth.

Because we don't talk about race, we don't work as hard as we could to connect underemployed city residents to jobs throughout the region. Just compare the delays and overcrowding on some MTA buses to the target clientele (visitors and those who live, work or play downtown), cost (it's free), name (it's not called a bus) and convenience of the Charm City Circulator. "Commuter bus" sounds efficient, "express bus" slightly exclusive, but what's a "bus" without a modifier? The subliminal message is this: That's for poor people — black, uneducated, poor people who must be kept immobile. We travel divergent paths at different speeds.

Race is still too often a determining factor influencing many things, like where you live, how easy it is to get there, and whether or not you'll receive a quality education.

And we don't talk about race because for decades it's been easier to let our feet do the talking. The border dividing Baltimore City from the surrounding counties is a deep black line retraced every day with fear. Our silence supports that separation.

To be sure, some of us are talking, but we need to get better at it, and more of us need to participate, because if we do we can have a real discussion about community — not this "Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods" platitude but something deeper. I'm talking about bonds forged out of shared suffering, the working out of problems among those who literally can't afford to leave and those who stay because their very identity is anchored here. That is a powerful force to unleash. This type of honesty can reframe what looks like blocks upon blocks of failure and show what it often is, resilience searching desperately for opportunity.

The point is not to talk about race for the sake of race. But by facing up to it, we earn a more accurate reading of history, acknowledge the fear that governs too much of our lives, and highlight barriers that have blocked the way forward.

This is important work — and much more than one extraordinarily patient man could do alone.

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. You can reach him by email at lionel@lionelfoster.com and Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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