Before we 'transcend' race, we must discuss it

The Baltimore Sun

So, how's that national conversation on race coming along?

After Sen. Barack Obama delivered his speech titled "A More Perfect Union" in Philadelphia last month, many well-meaning folks agreed that it's time we Americans had a national conversation on race.

And many others said, let's not.

As Mickey Kaus put it in his Kausfiles blog at, "Actually, a lot of voters supported Obama because they'd kind of like to ignore race, you know?"

In fact, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly argues, Mr. Obama's not going to get the national conversation on race that he wants.

Why? White Americans are "afraid" to talk about race because liberals are so quick to condemn white people as racists if they "make a mistake."

Preached Mr. O'Reilly, "African-Americans should realize that this stuff drives good people away from constructive dialogue that might advance racial harmony in America." He added that "race baiters and profiteers actually hurt minorities by inhibiting sincere discussion."

Yet, it lifted my optimism that, after that explanation of why Americans won't have a conversation about race, Mr. O'Reilly proceeded to hold a conversation about race.

As one of the participants, I pointed out this apparent contradiction. Mr. O'Reilly was unmoved. Most ordinary people won't converse, he said, except with people they know really well. "They're too scared," he insisted.

True enough. In today's etiquette, race talk is a lot like sex talk. Everybody thinks he's an expert, but nobody wants to discuss it with strangers or in front of the children. Instead, if we talk about race at all, we tend to do it with people who are just like us and who can be safely presumed to agree with us.

That's comforting, at least temporarily, but it's not educational. Without knowledge of one another's cultures, we avoid understanding what's really on other people's minds. Instead, we stumble in our ignorance into the occasional racial shock - like the famously polarized reactions of blacks and whites to the O.J. Simpson murder trial verdict.

It was that kind of racial shock that led to Mr. Obama's Philadelphia speech. Inflammatory snippets from the Illinois senator's former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, shocked many Americans.

"In the past week," journalist Gwen Ifill told The New York Times, "we have seen a distinct difference in commentary on Reverend Wright from people who have spent time in black churches and those who have not."

Before Mr. Wright's stuff hit the fan, Mr. Obama carefully avoided specifics on the touchy issue of race in his campaign. He knew a political minefield when he saw one.

Some of his own supporters resented Mr. Wright's emergence, as Mr. Kaus implies, precisely because he forced race back into the spotlight.

For that reason, among others, I agree with Mr. O'Reilly that some people are too eager to accuse others of racism or to use racism as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility. But some people can be too eager to claim that they have been accused of racism too.

Many of Mr. Wright's critics, who have never heard him give a full sermon, have accused him of racism. Yet, as his white supporters have pointed out, his sermons have attacked racism - but not any particular race. The difference is lost on folks who are less comfortable than even they might realize about the candor that is needed to cross our country's deep racial and cultural divides.

Mr. O'Reilly has a point. White folks tend to be uneasy about a candid conversation about race because, by the end of the conversation, they're afraid that somebody's going to have their hand out, asking for something.

And a lot of us black folks can be just as reluctant to expose our own vulnerabilities on issues that call for personal responsibility.

Mr. Obama received a lot of praise early in his presidential campaign for "transcending race," whatever that might have meant to those who said it. I think quite a few folks made the mistake of thinking that "transcending race" meant that Mr. Obama would take race off the table.

Wrong. If getting rid of racial problems was that easy, we Americans would have done it long ago. Before we can get beyond race, we have to work out our racial issues.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears weekly in The Sun. His e-mail is

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