Eight Years After Racism Ended

The celebrated Leonard Pitts, Jr., longtime Agate author and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, has offered us this brief essay about how Grant Park, his 2015 novel recently released in paperbackbears on the end of the Obama Presidency and what looms ahead.

My novel Grant Park ends with a beginning.

The narrative of race, rage, and recrimination has reached its denouement. The characters have contended with kidnapping, assassination, and long-lost love and have met their respective fates. And then, they find themselves faced with the astonishing fact that Barack Obama has won the election of 2008, ushering in a presidency that, in the eyes of one character, will pave the way for a new America, transformed and post-racial.

“All that old racial stuff,” he says, “we’re moving past that. “These next four years, you’ll see. It’ll be different from now on. We just elected a black president. You can’t tell me that doesn’t mean people are finally getting over all this stuff.”

I hope the average reader found that speech as sweetly naïve as I meant it to be. I hope it made her ponder America’s stubborn insistence upon deluding itself where racism is involved, its determination to believe this cancer of the human spirit can be excised in some singular, dramatic moment of progress after which we can finally declare ourselves well.

It doesn’t work that way, of course. It never has.

“I’m an old cat,” the historian Lerone Bennett, Jr. told me not long after Obama’s inauguration. By which he meant that he’s seen this before.

“In assessing the Magic Obama phenomena,” said Bennett, who was born in 1928, “I think we’ve got to remember the [other] times history turned on a dime and racism was solved forever. This is not the first time. Can we make that clear to people? This is not the first time the race problem has `ended’ in America.”

He’s right, of course. As Bennett reminded me, it first ended in 1865 when the slaves were set free. It ended in 1868 when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, and in 1870 when the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified.  It ended in 1954, when the Supreme Court shot down “separate but equal” schools. It ended in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act. It ended again the next year with the Voting Rights Act.

And it ended on that Tuesday in November of 2008 when the son of a white Kansan and a black Kenyan became the president-elect of the United States.

Except, obviously, that it did not.

If that was a painfully self-evident truth when Grant Park was released in 2015 after years of racially-charged invective aimed at Obama and his family, it is even more so as the nation prepares for Obama’s successor.

The new president brings to office a record you would think only a Klansman could love: he’s been sued twice by the federal government for housing discrimination; he once objected to the hiring of a black accountant, saying he wanted only “short guys that wear yarmulkes” counting his money; he has called laziness “a trait in blacks;” he continues to insist upon the guilt of five black and brown men wrongly convicted in the Central Park jogger rape case even after DNA testing long ago proved their innocence; he spent years seeking to delegitimize President Obama by questioning whether he was born in this country; he described undocumented Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers; he declared a U.S.-born judge unfit to preside over a case because of his Mexican heritage; he re-tweeted racist and anti-Semitic graphics from white supremacist organizations.

And yet, 62,979,879 American voters saw no reason any of that should bar him from the White House. Some percentage of that total doubtless represents people like the white meth-head who is one of my villains, people whose futures have always been circumscribed by their own poverty and ignorance, but who now find themselves having to live with the added indignity of seeing their perceived inferiors—like Obama—climb to unprecedented new heights. But what is more troubling are the millions of Americans who don’t fit that easy caricature, those with some education, some money in the bank, some hope for the future, who nevertheless voted for this guy, self-defined “good” people who saw his bigoted behaviors, yet were not offended enough to deny him their support.

Taken together, it all represents a repudiation of racial amity to a degree and with a force that would have seemed unthinkable that night when Barack Obama stood before a rainbow coalition in Grant Park and declared that, “Change has come to America.” One is reminded once again to be wary of moments when racism “ends” in a sudden thunderclap of progress.

And I keep thinking of my poor character, banged up both physically and emotionally by all the tortures I have put him through, yet still leaning toward the belief that this time, finally, we have gotten it right. The reader, knowing the things that came afterward—“You lie!” and “subhuman mongrel” and the birther movement—is supposed to find that character’s certainty bittersweet.

But this week, the nation’s first African-American president will be succeeded by a white supremacist. And it strikes me that this moment in my novel was more bittersweet than even I could have known.

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