There are of course deeply compelling reasons that as a subject race is the extremely sensitive and awkward thing it is. As the historians aptly have it, slavery was America’s “original sin,” and in the century to follow, even second class citizenship was a status denied most of the nation’s blacks. The very terminology associated with the era – “separate but equal,” “poll taxes,” “lynchings” – bespeaks a nightmarish state of affairs all but incomprehensible to the contemporary mind. It is wonderfully good (and quite remarkable) that, though that time was so recent that tens of millions living today vividly recall it, we almost universally look back upon it with shame and even incredulity.
But shame is a psychologically complex thing, and never more so than when applied to Americans and race. For even as it has impelled us to examine our ugly past with unflinching honesty – with every elementary school kid nationwide versed in the horrors of the middle passage, and slave narratives all the rage with history grad students, and black oppression the leitmotif of every Ken Burns documentary – it has precluded anything approaching an honest view of race today; indeed, has much to do with why such honesty has itself been routinely cast as racist.