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Transcending Race…A History Lesson

So this whole thing with Chris Matthews “forgetting that Obama is black” falls into that same range of racism as “Pretty for a black girl” and the “You’re not like those other black people” claptrap often espoused by the “I’m not racist, but…” crowd. They’re coded as compliments, but the subtext is still an ugly one that frames racism as being the fault of the oppressed. After all, if we’d all just be a credit to our race then our problems would go away right? Right. Oh wait, no that’s completely wrong.

Let me give you a quick history lesson on American race relations and what can happen when black people in this country are just going about their business. We can start with Rosewood, Florida. Now let’s move on to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and of course the riots that broke out right here in Chicago. What’s that? Oh, you think the early 20th century is ancient history? Okay. Let’s talk about a Baptist church in Selma, Alabama. Still too far in the past? Okay. Let’s come forward to cases like Lenard Clark’s or Abner Louima’s. Or this one on New Year’s Day 2010.

This incidents are as much a part of America’s racial history as the “I have a Dream” speech, traffic lights (invented by Garret A. Morgan, peanut butter, open heart surgery (successfully pioneered by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams), and all the other positive moments like the election of President Obama. I’ve heard people that claim to be colorblind (or post-racial) insist that the future hinges on seeing people without including race. Of course their future seems very…pale with some of the same people complaining about the continuing existence of institutions like the NAACP, HBCU’s, and other organizations that predate the Civil Right’s Movement.

I’ll buy that part of the problem is the failure of our educational system to teach history comprehensively, but that’s not the only reason for these attitudes. America’s efforts to “transcend” race are still about America’s efforts to forget the past entirely and of course to ignore anything happening right now that might require confronting reality. Racism isn’t going to go away as long as we try to pretend that ignoring race is a solution. The idea that race is something for POC to overcome is the equivalent of buying racism a new costume to replace the old hood.

13 thoughts on “Transcending Race…A History Lesson”

  1. rys says:

    Thank you as always, karnythia — you help keep it real for this 60-something white man who has spoken out against racism all his life, but who still is learning the full shape, size, and smell of that persistent monster.

  2. Christine says:

    The problem, for me, with such things… is that “transcending race” always seems to translate as “fully assimilated”. As if it’s the fault of anyone who’s not the dominant race for daring to have not only non-compliant skin tone or features… but also for daring to have any trace of our own history or culture.

  3. Bennett says:


    I’m disappointed that you respond to Chris Matthews’ statement with prejudice. You jumped to the “you’re not like those other black people” meaning even though there was nothing else in the context of what he said to support that meaning. It is clear that you are hearing more than he said, and that error falls on you, not on Chris.

    It’s obvious from context that all he meant was that though Obama’s election is one of the great milestones in American history, his legacy will be, and for all our sakes, MUST be much more than that. Chris was merely saying that the SOTU address was all about that other legacy, and that when Obama communicated the importance of these American issues of ethical governance and fiscal responsibility, his other legacy as the first Black president became an afterthought.

    I agree with Chris. We’ve achieved the dream of a Black president. Now we must achieve the dream of fiscal responsibility, social responsibility, and ethical governance. I share Chris’s hope that Obama’s legacy will prove to be much more than a racial milestone.

    1. karnythia says:

      I’m disappointed that you ignored the real context in favor of some later backpedaling by way of explanation. The entire spoken context actually makes the “forgetting” even more offensive in light of the historical and social context. The fact that you agree with Chris just shows me that you are also ignorant of the historical and social context of such a statement.

      1. Bennett says:

        karnythia, You seem to have no awareness of how much meaning you are projecting onto his statement.

        There is nothing from the context of what Chris Matthews said, or even from what he has said recently about race, that supports the meaning “you’re not like those other black people.” You jumped to that conclusion that is without merit.

        As for his “post-racial” position, you are absolutely right. This country is far from “post-racial,” if there could even be such a thing today. But cut Chris some slack. He will never understand what it is to be Black, but for a White guy, he’s pretty good at racial consciousness.

        Chris’s comment was racist only if you heard something different than he was trying to say. If he didn’t say it well, and stumbled into some easily misunderstood words, that doesn’t merit character assassination, and should simply be shrugged off. The benefit of the doubt is the best tool for this situation.

        1. karnythia says:

          I am under no obligation to give him the benefit of anything. Least of all because he’s “pretty good” since if he were he wouldn’t have felt the need to express an idea that forgetting skin color was necessary to pay attention to the message. Colorblindness is never a useful or respectable tool in discussions of race.

  4. Greg Laden says:

    Bennett, there is also this: There is a difference between “meaning” as to what someone intends, and “meaning” as to what meaning is invoked, or what the outcome is. I myself am very willing to give Chris Matthews all sorts of breaks because on balance (while he frustrates me a lot) he is more progressive than not. But I never heard Matthews note that he “forgot George Bush was a Yahoo from Texas.” I’ve heard his color-blind comments a number of times and it is always a little strange.

    I’m waiting for him to say this to an African American commenter. “Oh, for a while there I forgot you were black. But then you said this thing you just said and it all came back to me…”

  5. Jeff says:

    Chris showed obliviousness to racial history and feelings, and his statement revealed a lot usually obscured about race in our society. He’s also not a bigot, and he’s probably learning a lot from friends about his obliviousness. He’s racist in the sense that this society is racist; however, he’s not *a racist* in the sense you imply. At least, that’s my strong impression given the context.

    I hoped those whites who care (like me) would learn something from this, as I did. I don’t have anything to learn from actual white racists, but I do have something to learn from whites who are clueless when we blurt out something like this and don’t even know, at first, why it’s so wrong. So, I agree with what I think Bennett is saying.

    The harsher interpretation requires both bracketing off the larger context and also assuming the worst of someone…

  6. dcotler says:

    When someone admits that he is xenophobic and conscious of superficial differences between people (most of us are) and then celebrates the (even temporary) shedding of this burden (most of us don’t), i think it makes sense to commend the best of what he says.

  7. badhedgehog says:

    How would it actually be possible to forget that a black person is black? It just doesn’t work. *Pretending* that a black person isn’t black, or finding it hard to remember that “black” and “any good” can go together – I see how those might work… but why would a person want to be doing those things? Hmmm.

  8. BOMOORE says:

    When I listen to Chris Matthews I never forget he’s a white guy – isn’t that the same thing? He talks (yammers) like an egomaniacal white guy, right?

  9. Will says:

    It’s good that you posted a list of historically important black people, but it does always grate on me when people keep bringing up the guy who “invented the traffic light”. It even says in the article that this is a myth, and that he only designed one particular modified version.

  10. John says:

    I read all of that and… I am almost at a loss for words. I knew that racism in America is and always was a serious issue. But Christ, some of these things terrify the living shit out of me.

    I cannot understand the horrors that these people suffered I can only imagine.


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