For most of 2008, the most arresting image in America was a screen print by the street artist Shepard Fairey that appeared on posters, stickers, and clothing from sea to shining sea. The image was of a Black and white man rendered in red, white, and blue. The man was named Barack Obama and the four-letter word below his image was “HOPE.”
Obama was, of course, the presidential candidate who had come from the far geographic and cultural edge of the United States, its Pacific borderland in Hawai’i, to secure the Democratic Party nomination. He had run on a platform of mending a divided country. In a speech he gave in March that he called “A More Perfect Union,” he offered his own biracial heritage—the unity of Black and white histories in his own body—as a symbol of empathy and reconciliation.
That address, now popularly known as the “race speech,” was in some ways as historic as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial almost forty-five years earlier. “The complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through,” Obama said, remained “a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.” If Americans could move forward on race, he seemed to say, they could move forward on anything.
By then demographers had become accustomed to naming each new cohort of youths the most diverse generation the nation had ever seen. One in three Americans was of color. They formed the majority in a third of the country’s most populous counties, and in forerunner states like California, Texas, New Mexico, and Hawai’i.
Experts had begun projecting that sometime, perhaps as early as 2042, the United States would become “majority-minority.” The notion seemed stranger with each new census—if no race was a majority, then wouldn’t each be a minority? And just what would it mean for the nation?
The country in which Barack Obama could take the oath of office on the inaugural platform at the West Front of the Capitol building was most certainly not the same as the one in which Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the nation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. For that to have occurred, America needed to understand itself differently than it had for most of its first two centuries, which had been marked by formal racial segregation. Even after the civil rights movement enabled dramatic and sweeping leg- islative and judicial changes, those changes could take Americans only part of the way toward desegregation. Laws could not tell people how to see each other, how to be with each other, how to live together. They would have to find a new way of seeing America.
The United States had been historically defined by whiteness, drawn in grays, shades of white and black. But in Fairey’s famous print Obama had been colorized, to coin a phrase, just as the country to and for which he had become a symbol had been colorized. Colorization describes the massive shifts that began taking place as the civil rights movement began to ebb. These shifts were demographic and would have political implications. But the most profound changes have been cultural.
This is where we begin: How has the national culture changed over the past half-cen- tury that we could elect a Black president? And, just as important, how has it not changed?
To begin to answer these questions we must address that most complicated of
American words, another four-letter word: “race.”
We can all agree that race is not a question of biology. Instead it is a question of culture and it begins as a visual problem, one of vision and visuality. Race happens in the gap between appearance and the perception of difference. It is about what we see and what we think we see and what we think about when we see. In that sense, it’s bigger than personal affinities, preferences, tastes, and bonds.
Race has driven centuries of civil and cultural schisms and periodically brought the nation to the brink of dissolution. In 1952, Ralph Ellison encapsulated the central problem
of race and American visuality. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,” his protagonist remarked in the famous prologue to Invisible Man. “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imag- ination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”
Difference is human, and noticing difference is human. For us, it begins as babies, from our very earliest days of perception. But of course Ellison was pointing out that America’s race problem came from something deeper. For whites, historically, skin tone and physiognomy signaled not only difference, but notions of superiority and inferiority. This was the way racial power worked. It went further than merely perceiving difference. It sorted difference into vast systems of freedom and slavery, commitment and neglect, investment and abandonment, mobility and containment.
Then it drew a veil over these systems. It pretended not to have even seen dif- ference in the first place. Racism, in other words, was supported by a specific kind of refusal, a denial of empathy, a mass-willed blindness. In this context, the Other’s true self might always remain unseen. The Other might always bear the burden of representation.
The musician and intellectual Vijay Iyer has compared seeing to listening. When we feel empathy for another person, he reminds us, our brain’s mirror neurons fire. We understand another’s pain or joy at the root level of our being. Art, music, and literature can move us in the same way.
But psychologists and neuroscientists also warn that visual racialized difference gets in the way of empathy. Between a child’s curiosity about difference and an adult’s perception of difference, something has changed. We have learned to be compassionate or fearful before what we see.1
What made the breakthroughs of the civil rights movement—the last great con- sensus for racial justice—possible? Iyer speculates on the history of race, visuality, and popular music in the last half of the twentieth century by asking:
Is it possible that music-heard-and-not-seen ... might have overridden
the visual, racialized, culturally imposed constraints on empathy? Could the essential humanity of African Americans been newly revealed for white American listeners in the twentieth century through the disembodied circulation of “race records,” by activating in these listeners a neural “under- standing” of the actions of African American performers? Could a new
kind of cross-racial empathy, or at least a new quasi-utopic racial imaginary, have been inaugurated through the introduction of recorded sound?2
Listening, Iyer suggests, may have been crucial to the making of this consensus for racial justice, the aurality of race—powerfully shaped by twentieth-century Black music— firing the national conscience. But after the civil rights movement, race became a new
kind of American problem. Seeing became increasingly important.
With energy and urgency, artists and activists of color were pursuing their visions of a post-segregated nation, attacking the twin conditions of cultural segregation—the absence of representation and the presence of misrepresentation. The visuality of race— with its national history of erasure and debasement—became critical simply because people of color would no longer remain invisible.
So the new formal conditions of legal desegregation gave rise to a movement of art and ideas meant to bring about cultural desegregation. Its proponents came to name it multiculturalism. By the late 1970s, artists of color were focused on the question of recognition of identity—both legal and cultural. They argued that American culture had never been only white and Western, a singular, unitary, exceptional model. As Ishmael Reed, Al Young, and the members of the San Francisco Bay Area-based Yardbird Collective argued, America had always been multicultural.
That is when multiculturalism began to encounter powerful resistance. As lawmak- ers and judges unraveled an already fragile national civil rights consensus, questions of racial justice and cultural equity combusted in the most unlikely places: urban galler- ies, elite museums and institutions, advertising and marketing agencies, the studio, the theater, the editorial desk—everywhere where creativity was stoked and those desires expressed; where the image, the sound, the story, the work of art was made.
Within a decade, the ideas once incubated in a tiny West Coast avant-garde caused pitched battles from the classrooms to the editorial pages to the halls of power. Oppo- nents argued that if multiculturalists were allowed to triumph, American democracy would crumble. Four decades after Ralph Ellison’s cogent articulation of America’s race problem, Pat Buchanan declared the start of the “culture wars.”
These wars were declared in the name of restoration. As Buchanan began his 2011
Obama-era polemic, Suicide Of A Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025?: “What happened to the country we grew up in?” Both questions—the first inseparable from the second—pointed to an aching imperial nostalgia, an ideal of a homogenous Christian nation, and a quaking fear of a future conditioned by cultural and racial change.
Like all wars, the culture wars were not inevitable. But in the last epoch of the twen- tieth century these wars erupted because demographic change and multiculturalism had prompted new discussions about democracy, particularly around contested values of expression, recognition, inclusion, and empathy. After Obama’s election in 2008, the culture wars flared anew.
The culture wars were always framed as a struggle for the soul of America, a clash of competing narratives: the story of the great America we are in danger of losing forever versus the story of a hopeful emerging America. The nation’s colorization might lead to the end of American civilization or the beginning of a great national transformation. The culture wars made clear that race remained America’s most troubled divide.
Both sides understood that battles over culture were high-stakes. The struggle between restoration and transformation, retrenchment and change, began in culture. Culture was where change could be thwarted, or where it might flower.
By the new millennium, multiculturalism was less a movement than a platitude. While some still claimed diversity would be the ruin of America, many of multiculturalism’s former advocates had long forsaken it. To some—Aaron McGruder in The Boondocks, Trey Parker and Matt Stone in South Park, or the Martin Agency in their GEICO caveman commercials—it had become a cliché, a target ripe for parody, the last refuge of clueless hippiedom, the musty den of the PC police, the church of white guilt.
Multiculturalism had also been wholly absorbed into the mainstream. Forty years after Sesame Street was introduced to Public Broadcasting Service audiences, the Nick- elodeon network had Dora, Diego, Little Bill, and Kai-Lan. Multiracial TV casts became so normal that audiences objected when they did not appear. Our visual culture had been colorized. There had never been a time in American history when nonwhite people were more visible. President Obama and his beautiful young family were the apotheosis.
Global companies and national political parties embraced diversity. Advertisers segmented market niches for nonwhites. Multiculturalism had generated a new face for global capital and what David Theo Goldberg called the post-millennial “racial state.” But although difference was everywhere, it seemed to mean less than ever. So it was now worth asking: What good had colorization done?
From the height of the civil rights movement through the Cold War into a new era of globalization, the United States trumpeted the value of inclusion as central to its democracy. In response to European race riots or ethnic cleansing pogroms, we could invoke our exceptionalism. Yet the reality of race still belied the nation’s image of itself.
If the image of 2008 had been Fairey’s HOPE poster, the image of 2009—the year, Pat Buchanan claimed, that had “radicalized much of white America,” the beginning of what some only half-jokingly called the “post-hope” era—was a picture of a Obama whitefaced into Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker.6 Someone had photoshopped the president’s visage onto Heath Ledger’s Joker, mottled his eyes black, smeared his lips and dimples bloodred into a gruesome grin. The entire picture was framed by a commie-red border and finished with the accusatory word “SOCIALISM.”
The image had actually been assembled before Obama’s inauguration, but it went viral during the following summer, when organized conservative opposition to his health- care reform legislation disrupted town-hall meetings across the country. Far-right Tea Party members carried picket signs depicting Obama as an African witch doctor. Rede- signed food stamps featuring watermelon and fried chicken buzzed through e-mail and social networks.
To call Obama the Joker was to uncover all of his pathologies and elevate them into something archetypal. He was psychotically single-minded (his obsession with health-care reform), dismissive of tradition (his callousness toward “guns or religion” Americans), and downright murderous (his alleged support for so-called death panels).
“See, I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve,” says the Joker to Harvey Dent and Batman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. “You have all these rules and you think they’ll save you.... The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.”
“Introduce a little anarchy,” he says. “Upset the established order and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.”
Tea Partiers understood themselves in that quintessential, paradoxical American way. They saw themselves as rebels, outsiders, nonconformists. But they cast themselves in the role of Batman, a vengeful Old Testament kind of hero endowed with modern wealth, skill, and technology. Through their call to austerity, disinvestment, and civic white flight, they would restore the rightful order. Obama was a screen for their projec- tions, a worthy opponent.
“What would I do without you?” the Joker tells Batman. “You complete me.”
Obama, who had wanted to be a symbol of reconciliation, seemed to have been restored—by those fearful of a new America—to a symbol of all things Other: he was not just Black, not just the product of miscegenation, he was also a social- ist, a Muslim, an illegal alien. Behind the colorized face of hope was the whiteface demon of disorder. The Obama Joker was a lord of misrule, the triumph of the minstrel, in a show played no longer for laughs but for nothing less than the end of their America. Change the joke and revert the yoke.
The Obama Joker image enclosed the sum of all their fears while presenting the picture of confrontation. The image said: skip your empathy, screw your reconciliation, we embrace our victimhood—because a nation is not an unfinished draft in search of its missing words, it’s a game, and only one can win.
We live in an era in which the primary social schism is not that between so-called red states and blue states, but between those stuck on monoculturalism and a singular “American way,” and those comfortable with demographic change and cultural difference; those fearful over the great America in danger of being lost forever, and those hopeful about the one being made anew; those stuck in black-and-white, and those living in color. Americans remain overly apocalyptic on the one hand and overly ardent on the other, identity-fatigued and post-racially euphoric.
Cultural desegregation has changed America. We can be seen as a happy rainbow country. Yet all of our social indexes show rising rates of resegregation and inequity. In other words, there is a growing gap between what we see and what we think we see. For these conditions hide in plain view. Even as our image world expands at a profound rate, making us believe that every thing worth seeing is available to us, what sits in our blind spots may be more important than ever.
There is also a growing gap between what we think and what we say. Blindness and denial—personal and systemic—often stop us from speaking at all about race. What Toni Morrison once said of American letters is true for all civil discourse: “[I]n matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled.”9
Almost two decades after Bill Clinton announced that he wanted to begin a national conversation on race, we largely seem to talk about race through shallow media spectacles. We make noisy ritual of rapidly shunting to the dim wings of the image- world celebrities who reveal themselves as bigots. At the same time, illusion, acrimony, exhaustion, indirection, and muteness describe the rest of our all-but-suspended con- versation. We know what not to say to each other, but not what to say.
How did we get here?
“Images transfix,” Susan Sontag once wrote. “Images anesthetize.”10 They focus
our attention, and they dissolve it. They reveal things and they hide them. Each image demands a frame, and the act of framing is also the act of discarding. The writing of history can be, in a sense, the curation of images, revealing the struggle over what will be seen within the frame.
I think there is a particular reason we need history, even recent history. In the United States of America, we still tend to begin each conversation about race as if it were new, from a willed presumption of what might be called racial innocence, as if we have lived nothing and learned nothing. We presume race and identity to be fixed, not subject to any past or any future, beyond interpretation and beyond change. For these reasons they reappear time and again as unknowable irritants to a supposedly settled present.
Writing about race in America must always be a labor of recovery and faith and—
yes—hope against the spectacle of fear and the twilight of forgetting.
1. Jennifer N. Gutsell and Michael Inzlicht, “Empathy Constrained: Prejudice Predicts Reduced Mental Simulation of Actions During Observation of Outgroups,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46 (2010): 841–45.
2. Vijay Iyer, “Improvisation, Rhythm, Empathy, and Experience: A Perspective from
Embodied Music Cognition,” unpublished paper, February 2013.
3. Patrick J. Buchanan, Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive Until 2025?
(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011), 5.
4. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), Roset- taBooks e-book edition (2005), 15.