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Thursday, October 19, 2017

So we’re not post-racial yet.

Instead, we are preoccupied with race, chafing along the color line, possessed of wildly divergent views of authority, justice and equality. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in the aftermath of widely publicized police shootings and the attacks on Dallas police officers, 60 percent of Americans believe race relations are growing worse.

Some among us lay the blame for that, absurdly, at the feet of President Barack Obama, who was supposed to usher in an era of peace, harmony and racial healing — at least according to some utterly naive predictions made at the time of his first election. Instead, it seems, his presence in the Oval Office precipitated a furious backlash, a tidal wave of resentment from those whites who see his ascendance as a sign of their decline.

But that’s not the president’s fault. He has studiously tried to avoid stirring the cauldron of race, to bridge the color chasm, to unite the warring American tribes. His only crime is in symbolizing the anxieties of those white Americans who see a black man in power as the bete noire of their nightmares.

It makes more sense to blame the presumptive GOP nominee, Donald Trump, for these troubling times. He enters his nominating convention in Cleveland as the same divisive bully he has been throughout the campaign — a man singularly ill-suited to lead a diverse nation.

Trump has not just pandered to the prejudices of his mostly white supporters; he has also encouraged them with his incendiary promises to limit immigration and his vicious insults of the president, starting with his claim that Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Trump works assiduously to keep us divided, a state that sharpens his political advantage.

But the simple truth is that neither Obama nor Trump created this moment. This unruly time has been more than 200 years in the making. We have not yet put away the old ghosts, so they continue to haunt us.

Take the police shootings that have prompted protests around the country during the last several days. There is nothing new about police violence toward black citizens, nothing unusual about bias in the criminal justice system, nothing unexpected about the institutional racism that conspires to imprison black Americans disproportionately.

Just read Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery by Another Name,” an account of law enforcement practices in the Deep South following the Civil War. White business owners demanded low- to no-cost labor, and they got it by imprisoning black men unfairly and putting them to work.

To justify their rank oppression and their state-sanctioned violence — black people were lynched with impunity for more than a century — powerful whites trafficked in awful stereotypes about black criminality. Those old biases — those hateful stereotypes — didn’t just fade away with the civil rights movement.

As President Obama put it during his moving and elegant speech memorializing the Dallas dead, “We also know that centuries of racial discrimination, of slavery, and subjugation, and Jim Crow — they didn’t simply vanish with the law against segregation.”

Still, there are many who would dismiss Obama, whose political views demand they grant him no legitimacy. Maybe they’d listen instead to Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who rose to the floor of the Senate on Wednesday to give a deeply personal account of his maltreatment at the hands of police officers.

Scott is a rock-solid conservative who rarely agrees with the president about anything. He is also black, and, as he noted, that’s enough to kindle suspicion from some law enforcement authorities.

“In the course of one year, I’ve been stopped seven times by law enforcement officers, not four, not five, not six, but seven times, in one year, as an elected official. Was I speeding sometimes? Sure. But the vast majority of the time, I was pulled over for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reasons just as trivial,” he said.

That’s a powerful testament to the ways in which the old ghosts still haunt us, even in an age of a black president and two black U.S. senators. We are not post-racial yet, and until we can confront and exorcise the demons of our past, we will never be.

Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.

Photo: People take part in a protest against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter during a march in New York July 9, 2016. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz