The Persistent Strain

THE WEEK leading up to the Michael Brown non-verdict was one in which race was at the forefront of daily life, at least as much as it was in the ancient days of my Mississippi upbringing.

You could say that week started with President Obama’s executive action on immigration. The next morning, I did household chores and listened to NPR coverage of the often-heated reaction to the president’s speech. The next day, my wife and I drove into Louisville to see Dear White People, Justin Simien’s devastatingly clever and thoughtful take on racism and identity politics among the Obama generation.

The movie made me laugh (at a volume embarrassing to my poor spouse) and even applaud in the middle of a crowded theater. It also left me pondering the persistence of the white supremacist virus in the American body politic. Over the past half-century, the film suggests, it may have evolved into a weaker strain, but it’s still lurking in there, and it can still make us sick.

A few evenings later, at the historically black college where I teach, my “Magazine and Feature Writing” class was discussing “Fear of a Black President,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which appeared in the September 2012 issue of The Atlantic. In his epic essay, Coates takes Obama to task for failing to follow up on his 2008 “Jeremiah Wright” speech in which he seemed poised to lead the U.S. in confronting its racial demons. At the same time, Coates also makes a fairly airtight case that, despite his efforts to not be the “black” president, opposition to Obama and his policies has often been motivated by fear and/or resentment of his race. Coates’ analysis centers especially on the right-wing firestorms that ensued when, in two famous racial-profiling cases, Obama acknowledged that he could identify with the victims because of his own race.

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