Why are conservatives so conciliatory about President Obama?
Even the Republicans I work with abandoned their cubicles last Tuesday morning to watch the inauguration with us liberals in the creative department, and they hardly made a cynical crack. Aren't these the same people who eight weeks ago thought Obama was a secret Muslim terrorist and possibly the Anti-Christ?
What they say is this: They respect the presidency and the historical nature of the thing, or they now perceive him as more moderate than they'd expected, or they, too, are tired of “childish things” and feel attracted to the rhetoric of bipartisanship, or they respect his intellect and leadership qualities and want to, begrudgingly, give the guy a chance, or they're worried about their own asses and sincerely hope he can pull us out of this mess, or they just plain like him and his family and wish they could invite the Obamas over for a backyard barbecue. Did you see those cute kids? I shop at J. Crew, too!
But whatever they say, I suspect it's also a white thing (yes, every Republican I know is white): glee over confirmation that America has transcended its racist underpinnings. See, goes the argument, racism is over; liberals will finally have to quit whining and join us post-racial Americans in understanding that race is no more meaningful than hair color.
It must be a great relief for people who don't like to think about race to finally believe they don't have to think about race anymore.
I have an idea for dealing with this in the form of a concept for a new reality TV show. It's really a rip-off of the best thing I ever saw on television, which was so good I videotaped it (in the world before DVD and DVR). It was a 20-minute, 1991 episode of ABC News' Prime Time Live, hosted by Diane Sawyer, called “True Colors.”
What they did on that show was take a black guy and a white guy who were otherwise almost exactly the same, move them to a new city—St. Louis, chosen at random—and follow them around with hidden cameras as they tried to make a new life. The black guy, Glen, and white guy, John, were best friends, worked for the same company, had graduated from the same college, played softball together, dressed similarly and so forth.
In the new city, the two separated for the experiment, then shopped in the same stores, inquired about buying the same cars, tried renting the same apartments, applied for the same jobs and walked the same streets.
In incident after incident, John was given the job, rented the apartment, graciously assisted and made to feel he belonged. Glen was followed in the stores by security, lied to about apartments having been already rented and positions filled, quoted artificially higher prices, lectured to, told he was walking on the wrong side of town and generally made to feel very unwelcome. The blatant discrimination was revelatory to me and every white person to whom I showed the tape.
The wisdom “True Colors” revealed was similar to that of white journalist John Howard Griffin's 1961 book, Black Like Me, in which Griffin recounted his experiences after undergoing skin-pigmentation treatments as part of an elaborate attempt to appear black in America at the dawn of that decade's civil-rights struggle.
The wisdom is this: You don't know what it's like to be black in America unless you are black in America, so if you're white and want to know if America has overcome being a nation founded on fairly recent racially based enslavement, don't draw your conclusion based on how racist you think you aren't. Instead, ask a black person.
My proposed reality show would replicate the “True Colors” experiment in city after city, week after week. I strongly doubt we've come all that far since 1991, black president notwithstanding. The hidden camera would let white folks be the fly on the wall as average black folks apply for bank loans, try to rent a house or seek help after locking their keys in their car in a suburban supermarket parking lot.
If the show was a hit, it could lead to episodes where hidden cameras document how other people of color, women and disabled individuals are treated differently. It could help raise awareness of how far we have yet to go. It's conceivable that one day the hidden cameras would reveal a country where white-male privilege had become as undetectable to everyone else as it already is to so many white males. And the show could go on, documenting how far we'd come.
Because conservatives aren't interested in reading statistics on employment, housing, education, drug enforcement and other forms of discrimination against black Americans, my TV show is just what these promoters of the fantasy of post-racial America need to temper their self-satisfaction at no longer fearing their new black friend, the president. The show might also temper their unfair criticism of the inaugural benediction of Reverend Joseph Lowery—who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and whose property was once seized by the State of Alabama—who merely had the audacity to say he looks forward to a day “when white will embrace what is right.” Amen, brother Lowery. My new reality show is for you most of all.