Living Race: Reflections on Shirley Sherrod, a Supreme Court Nomination, and LeBron James

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Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack listens as members of the Congressional Black Caucus speak to the press after a meeting on Capitol Hill to discus the forced resignation of Shirley Sherrod.

White people used to own black people in the United States. And it was profitable to own black people because they performed labor that white people couldn’t or didn’t want to perform. And it was legal to own black people in the same way that it is now legal to own a cow, or a horse, or a dog.

In 1865, after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, owning black people – chattel slavery – became illegal. However, Black Codes and Jim Crow laws made certain that white people didn’t have to be around black folk. This legal hyper segregation lasted until 1954 when the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and it was determined that segregation was unconstitutional.

And then there was integration, the Civil Rights Movement, and then I moved from Central Los Angeles to Arlington, Texas in 1983 and they called me n---er nearly every day at Key Elementary School. Then at Gunn Junior High they made certain that I knew that people like me were owned and that I was less of a person than they were with insults and teachers having our History classes watch the mini-series Roots on VHS during Black History Month. At Martin High, my response was to earn low grades and to become a discipline problem, fighting white racists on the regular – some of whom I know to be Tea Party die-hards.

This narrative forms an arc of my development as a black man in this country. It certainly is not my singular developmental arc, or my singular identity, but it is interwoven into my whole self. It is a context by which I patch together my understanding of the complexity of race in the United States and how it impacts people who have wide noses, thick lips, dark skin and my shared cultural historical reality.

So I’m not surprised when the Senate Judiciary Committee questions a Supreme Court nominee who clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall by questioning Marshall’s unparalleled judicial chops. And I’m not shocked when the Tea Party Express organizer writes some crazy, racist satirical rant to Abe Lincoln from the “coloreds.” The Owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers going nuts because his money-maker – LeBron James – dips to Miami seems about right in my eyes.  And USDA official Shirley Sherrod being forced to resign, because the government buckles to the whims of a super-conservative blogger and mistakenly casts her as a racist, is par for course from a government and a governmental department with such a deep-rooted orientation toward racial discrimination. 

Again, black people were owned, and defined by the United States government as less than human. The hard core of this reality is not easily digestible and is often glossed over or pushed to the side by white and black people who want desperately not to recognize this horror. Accordingly, we intellectualize these experiences or relegate them to feelings rather than unpack them to figure the dynamic, enduring psychology associated with these lived experiences in an effort toward establishing more healthy relationships.

The interesting thing here and now is that the 2008 election of a black president has recast the social context in America such that race is salient for white people in a way that it has never been before. Seeing a black man run the country on the news every night, and in the newspapers everyday and on the web 24/7 conjures some interesting constructs with which white and black people to have to deal. We are now forced to move beyond the ideals of fairness and justice and have to live race in a way that forces us to realize a psychological cost for the racism on which this country has been founded. We are forced to engage a lived racial reality – and this is a good thing.

David Wall Rice is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Morehouse College and is presenting a paper next month at the American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention entitled: "Identity Stasis: Orchestrating Identity in the Age of Obama."