On a recent fall afternoon a brilliant friend who had been my professor twenty years earlier e-mailed to see if I was available for dinner. I took it to be a social call as I went to meet him later that week at a West Village restaurant once frequented by the writer Richard Wright and his wife, Ellen, when they lived nearby. It was among the few neighborhood establishments that would serve an interracial couple in 1950s New York, even in one of its most-liberal enclaves. We both liked the restaurant for this. The food and the wine list are also good, but nice meals are common in New York. We went to feed the ghosts, and invisible histories.
We spent most of the evening catching up on mutual friends and talking shop, the ebb and flow of creative life. As we neared the end of dinner, he turned abruptly silent, which was not entirely strange. It was the kind of friendship comfortable with silences. “Listen,” he said when the conversation resumed, “Yale is going to offer you a job. You should take it.”
It was only then I understood it had been a job interview. Despite the honor, he knew that even if I had spent much of my life around universities, I was ambivalent about their approach to the things I study. “Can I actually teach?” I blurted out skeptically before I could stop my tongue, in a way that, in retrospect, fills me with chagrin.
“If they’re hiring you, it means they trust you to do whatever you want,” he said as we left the restaurant. “As far as the rest of your concerns, you don’t have to worry about any of that, not with the kids you’ll be teaching.”
The Yale English faculty is housed in a pair of conjoined Romanesque and neo-Gothic buildings through whose labyrinth of offices, classrooms, and courtyards one could trace much of the intellectual history of America. I don’t think it controversial to say that over the years, more original minds have gathered in those rooms than nearly any where else in America. It also happens to be one of the few institutions that have survived the colonial era.
The students awaiting me that January afternoon turned out to be some of the most gifted one might hope to meet anywhere. If this were a book from an earlier generation, this is where I would stop to reflect on my discomfort or offer some piety about how lucky I felt to be there. The truth is I’ve spent most of my life feeling odd, halfway in and halfway out of everything. But as the semester wore on, I’ve seldom ever felt that much at home.
My fortune was to have inherited two of the most competitive courses on campus, which meant that I had my pick of students across English and the related departments of American Studies and Comparative Literature. I chose students on merit, and as a group they happened to look exactly as one would want a meeting of the brightest people in twenty-first-century America to look.
Ines, whose name, like the rest, I’ve changed to protect her privacy, was a Chicana from the borderlands in Arizona, the first in her family to go to college. Peter, a quiet blond boy from Rhode Island, was a second-generation Yalie and, deservedly, a leader in the student community. Dawn was an African American woman from Georgia who had been adopted as a child and who was also of Latinx descent. Adaolisa was from the West Coast, the daughter of a Ghanaian father and white Canadian mother. Rachel was active in the campus LGBTQIA community and was committed to social justice as she tried to understand her own identity and place in the world. David, a Jewish kid from the heartland, was conspicuously nice. He never missed an opportunity to demonstrate what a good guy he was, or how sensitive to others. Francis, who sat at the other end of the table, was also Jewish but had an atheist’s relationship to religion and the complex ethnic feeling of the third generation: perfectly assimilated in most contexts yet hardened in the face of perceived anti-Semitism. She grew impatient whenever David fastened his identity to Judaism and angry whenever she heard a slight. Lucy was a New England WASP, a standout at boarding school whose familial expectations about what being at Yale meant ran counter to her own mind and imagination, which were far more interesting and nuanced than her background suggested. All of them were.
They were also, like many people born after the civil rights movement, part of a still developing experiment in integrated education, which in this moment meant feeling empowered enough to speak up for themselves, whatever their identity, while demanding equal respect. I loved them for that. Even if some of the logic of their arguments was not yet sound, their feelings and the substance of their critiques were fiercely right-minded.
But even in a room with so much talent and goodwill on the multitudinous sea of identity, looking, as we are so often reminded, the way our American future is supposed to, they were, every last of them, still so trapped by their own identities that they could not see one another fully. How could they? They had only just met. A syllepsis, which means something both literally and figuratively true.
Like a great many people, their individual concerns, and the language in which they had been taught to express them, often blinded them to one another, even as they gave voice to the frustration of being unseen. They could speak about, and advocate, their personal positions in the most sophisticated, confident terms. However, they didn’t have enough experience with those who were not like them to be able to see through one another’s eyes. Good intentions and fellow feeling are not the same thing. Political speech is not the same as full human articulation. It is the difference between a party platform, which describes the outline of a vision for national life, and a novel, which tells of the deep interior of an individual consciousness amid the hidden mechanisms that really run society. There is a great deal that our current political language fails to capture, and therefore to affect.
I’m not sure how possible it is to truly understand anyone else’s deepest life, but I do know that the ways identity, including racialized thinking, affect and shape us run deep. At some point, for all the good it’s done in giving us a political language for injustice and to help define a national dialogue about injustice, the politics of identity and race also traps us in a bubble of representing the self without deeper understanding. My grievance versus your grievance. My “truth” versus another’s. It’s easy to nod and say the right thing without listening or speaking of the true self. Sometimes we lack awareness. Sometimes the pain is too much. Sometimes the shame. Even when we inhabit spaces that look integrated on the surface, we bring prior experiences of race and segregation to the ways we see and interact.
The first class met on a snowy afternoon during the day that Donald Trump, a president less qualified than Jefferson Davis and yet a product of American democracy, was inaugurated. The students, who had grown up in Obama’s America, despaired of what should be done now that the excitement of those years had come crashing to a halt. They felt the world had told them an infinitely cruel lie about what this country is and feared what might become of them in a society that had returned so quickly and gleefully to patriarchy, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, inequality in all its forms. “We are going to do our work,” I said simply, knowing the full answer to their question was more complex than I could answer in the first class. Maybe even more than could be told in a single semester. But I trusted that the deep work of real reading and writing did hold the answers. My job was only to provide more-subtle tools in the most lucid space I knew how to activate.
What gave me any sense that I was qualified to explain any of it, beyond a lifetime of reading, was I had spent most of my life grappling with a host of the same problems: of feeling the world was opening up to include those who looked like me or shared my concerns, only to learn that much of the country wished for no such thing and even those who thought they did still did not understand properly what that meant. I will admit I used to think we were further along; it is only recently I understood how new and strange genuine encounters across lines of identity, those engineered divides of history and humanity, truly are in US society.
Because of my own experience, I was aware of the power of treating my students the same and holding them to the same standard whatever their social identity. I also knew they were not the same and understood the burning hotness of having someone traduce your individuality because they could not disentangle you from whatever their idea was about your group and, just as bad, receiving some well-meaning blandishment from someone in authority, or else a high-minded theory, which in the end is only that, a theory. It is exactly at the theory of equality that we as a society have chosen to stop.
Midway through the semester, the living complexities began to reveal themselves, namely the human differences beyond the surface of meritocracy and the truth about the world we live in, and the current socio-historical moment. First, David wrote something that all the women in class objected to, accusing him of objectification. Some loudly, others with silent disdain. He defended himself by saying the right things, fearful of social shame. He was more mortified of what would happen if he told the whole truth: that he did not mean to give offense but also did not fully understand what he had done wrong or how to amend it.
A week later, Dawn wrote something about her life as an African American woman, dismissing the other students for failing to understand it. She was partially right. Literary studies are organized in antiquated ways. Some of them can’t be changed. Some of them have already been changed, but English departments still haven’t caught up to them. This means the serious students of color have been for generations now learning and integrating multiple canons, one in which they are included and one in which they are not.
Later still, Francis was told that something she said was a product of her Jewishness, when this was not the case at all. She was being reduced from a person to a member of a group. Peter did something brilliantly subtle about violence directed at gay people, without politicizing it, causing the others to miss the point entirely. It was, like the other misunderstandings, a failure not of politics but of reading. Among a great many other things, reading well requires that we see what is before us instead of simply relying on what we believe we know.
Adaolisa, who was as sensitive as she was gifted, felt she was being exoticized. Lucy thought everything was queer and anyone who denied it was homophobic. Ines, who was used to having schoolwork come easy to her, began using her background as an excuse for sloppy work, in a way no one had ever bothered to call her out on for fear of being seen as insensitive, or worse. Her problem had less to do with her background than with the defense mechanisms gifted kids resort to when things become more challenging than they are used to and intelligence alone is not enough. After conferring with a colleague, I ended up assigning her enough extra work that most graduate students would have protested and most departments would claim was too high a standard. To her enduring credit, she did all of it.
All of them were conscientious people, and, with few exceptions, I made a practice of addressing whatever offense had been given, received, or perceived in office hours after class, where none of them could be judged or feel vulnerable before the others. Both because I believed what each of them needed to hear was individual and also because I wanted them to remain open and vulnerable before one another. Without that, none of us could ever learn anything, especially not the things we would rather pretend we already know than admit our frailty. At least I know my first instinct is always to cover up defensively in environments where I feel unsafe or afraid.
Like my students, I had grown up in a society integrated in some ways, segregated in others, and educated in spaces that prided themselves on their multiculturalism (in reality a murkier operation involving teachers who often had little experience of integration beyond the handful of students who passed before them). It was a time that felt on the verge of change. What surprised me was how similar the language my undergraduates used was to the language we used. Little, if anything, new had been said in the twenty years between us. Older people had told me the same thing once. As much as I resented them for it at the time, it eventually entered my hard head how much all of this was a generation-over-generation conversation, one that stretches back to the very first generation to call itself American.
The sentiments and the problems are the same. Only the names and faces of the people have changed. But also the numbers. My parents grew up in a time of black firsts. I grew up in a time when black people in spaces privileged as white were usually few and far between. The only black kids, or a small enough cluster to fit at a single table in the lunchroom. Now there are more, but still not as many as should be. The problems in the ghetto, of course, remain the same, too. That there are ghettos.
The first waves of the civil rights movement began to right the abject harms of racial oppression, only to see them become ever more resistant and ever more subtle, reaching into law and economics, but also deep into cultural and physical space, and inevitably into personal realms that no law should ever reach but that nonetheless demand interrogation.
In the case of my class, wherever they came from and whatever their other concerns, none of them wanted any part in reproducing the structures of oppression: structures they recognized more completely than a great many older people but still struggled to know how to escape. Compounding this, they also wanted to succeed. Many were savvy enough about “the way things work ” to understand that even exposing the full extent of their worries, of their ignorance in front of one another, laid them open to charges of being naive, prejudiced, or worse. They simply said the right things publicly. As a performance it was good enough for most situations, but each of them intuitively knew the difference. We can all sense when someone sees us and when someone does not.
This is the same unresolved state in which liberal society at large currently exists. We know intellectually that the world is unjust and do not wish to be instruments of oppression. Yet if we are honest, most of our lives implicate us in ways we do not know how to free ourselves from, or else know but lack the steadfastness. This complexity is what we politely ignore or treat with platitudes when we talk about race, diversity, multiculturalism, and intersectionality. We have lost focus on the real systemic problems and, in this distracted state, the necessary sense of purpose to resolve them.
Instead, in liberal as well as conservative spaces, we pride ourselves on how far we have come from slavery, from lynching, from the overwhelming physical, material, and psychological oppression we politely call segregation. We declare our good intentions instead of measuring ourselves against the goals we wish to reach, as one does when one is serious about something.
Speaking truth to power, as the old canard goes, means nothing unless we live those truths fully. America has always been a deeply dualistic construct, one free, honest, and democratic and the other brutal, larcenous, and repressive. Saying we oppose these things, or addressing the problem reactively at the site of whatever new tragedy has unfolded, will never be enough. We must understand the completeness of the problem and the full effort required to solve it.
The extrinsic benefits of an elite education include access to opportunities, and they serve, especially for students from historically excluded groups, as social proof of worthiness. As a corrective for the ways prior environments have taught us to see, or not see, even if there were enough seats in such places to address the issue at scale, it remains perfectly possible to inhabit these spaces without meaningful interaction with those who do not share one’s background. It is equally possible to congratulate ourselves for the appearance of multiculturalism without challenging the prejudices we have internalized and to know better than to speak aloud. Because so many of the notions we receive from our society are so deep and so entwined with our identities, it is often a fool’s errand to try.
I wish I could offer a fail-safe formula to eradicate unconscious biases in a foreshortened time period. The question of whether it is possible for us to see one another and ourselves across social divides is one of the complex questions in contemporary culture, informing nearly everything else, either implicitly or explicitly. I happen to think that it is largely possible, even perfectly possible. One sees it so plainly in artists such as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, or Philip Roth when he cares to and, each by another remarkable path, critical minds as different as Harold Bloom, Jacques Derrida, and Edward Said. Without getting too esoteric, I believe that this vision turns on the ability to dissolve the world and access one of the better, more transcendent selves. This conflicts with our usual materialism and will to power, and is more in tune with the view that we are limited beings.
However, for those already programmed by the system, the mask of falseness, whereby we pretend to see, to understand, to know better than we do, runs so profoundly deep—in its vanity, its presumption, its performances now of superiority, now of empathy—and elicits such hostility when it is revealed to be a mask that for most of us regular folk, the answer is similar to whether it is possible to become truly fluent in another language. The younger you start and the more you practice, the greater the chance of success.
As a practical matter, this involves being more aware of the ways that narratives and meanings are produced by their societies, the variety of these narratives, and what they tell us about the desires of society and individual consciousness, including our own. This quest is less abstract than it sounds.
When it comes to race, the cultural borders are especially unstable, which is why they must be continuously reinforced and narratives of authority constantly elevated. This process of policing and reinforcing happens at the individual, social, and institutional levels, and it happens largely in the background of conscious awareness. It is larger and more powerful than the lone individual. Not only can such a system be unmade; its deepest fear individually, socially, and institutionally is also that it can be and will be unmade.
Whether and, crucially, how deeply this information is received lies beyond the boundary of the classroom. I like to think that my students all became more aware of the complexities of reading and writing, and how manifestly entwined these are with their own social beings in ways that expand who they are and what they are capable of. But a great deal depends on how honest and open they can be with themselves and one another in a cultural milieu that contains so many competing values. If they fail at this, sometimes saying one thing while thinking and feeling another, for fear of social censure or betraying the chink in their armor, well so do we all.
We manage our knowledge and self-presentation according to the demands of the environment. There are some things one can tell students only in a classroom, the earlier the better. There remains other knowledge that cannot be contained in institutional spaces but belongs to the unique intimacy of books.
Before we go on, it is necessary to point out something irreducibly simple, which may strike a few as basic but will cause most people some degree of discomfort. There has never been a race problem in America. The reason there has never been a race problem in this country is there is no such thing as race in this world.
Every attempt to assert the validity of race, whether by the most duplicitous white supremacist or vehement black nationalist, is a lie. Every argument built on race, every argument about race, everything ever said about race other than to debunk it is at base meaningless, grounded in a scientific and social history of white supremacy.
There are many reasons race should be in the center of our national conversation; after all, the effects and desires of racism are too real. It is a myth that inspires actions, systems, people. Still, everything that follows from falseness is necessarily false. Race is the first theorem in the argument that different peoples have different abilities, are worthy of different esteem, and deserve different fates. It is a commonplace defense for evil.
Our society does not have a race problem; it has a racism problem. It has been organized around this falseness since the seventeenth century, an unfathomable amount of time in human terms, but not so much on the scale of history that it cannot be righted.
We know it was the capture of a Portuguese galleon carrying imprisoned Africans to Mexico that brought the first Negroes to the English settlement at Jamestown. Even the name of the vessel comes down to us through the years: the White Lion.
We know the Spanish had practiced slavery since the Reconquista ended Muslim rule of the Iberian peninsula and that they began to enslave their former masters. As the Portuguese and Spaniards starting exploring the Atlantic, they carried slavery with them from port to port, like rats, like disease.
We know that at the beginning of the plague years in North America, African and English servants shared quarters and conditions. We know hereditary bondage went hand in glove with the invention of capitalism. We understand that the moral, financial, and psychological need to justify slavery led the early colonists to look to the ancients, to theology, to science, to anything they could to create an ideology of racism. We know its oppression continued long after the Civil War and continues still, so deep is it within the fabric of the society, a fabric from which each individual is cut. We know, from generations of witnesses stretching back to Olaudah Equiano, who wrote the first account of the Middle Passage by one of its survivors, that race wishes not only to steal the body but also to claim the spirit.
As history would have it, we have organized US society and our sense of self around a fiction as baseless as the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy. America had a slavery problem, and with it a white racism problem, both of which collided with the concept of democracy. After slavery ended, we faced the problem of how to integrate the newly freed or, as the case may be, how to avoid it. Race, both product and producer of white-supremacist thought, is the crutch that props the whole thing up.
Recognizing race for what it is and what it fully means to move beyond it would be as devastating as it would be for a child to realize all the myths and charades his parents invested so much energy and imagination in upholding are simply not so. One no longer knows what to believe. Letting go of the myth of race would engender a crisis so profound in contemporary Americans that to call it spiritual or existential would be an understatement. But what else is it when we are asked to abandon the gods of our parents and their parents as far back as anyone remembers? If the world understands me as a black man, if I deeply like being African American and have defined myself and my life by it since I had agency to define anything, what am I, besides a maverick or fool, if I let that go?
There are metaphysical answers to that (too convoluted to engage—call it complex consciousness) and religious answers (a child of God), but in our secular, materialist world most of us would say: a human being. However, we all know that what we say and what we do come apart before lunchtime most days of the week.
When it comes to what we call race, our words and deeds are eternally apart. If we relinquished race, I would remain a black American, of course, part of a cultural, historical, and communal experience—but black as I define it. In a society beyond race, blackness would belong, like any other ethnic identity, to my private self and shared cultural experience instead of being a civic state of urgent concern, a social caste apart.
America does not view all people as human beings. In an integrated society we would eventually all be simply Americans, without other qualifiers. We would interact as equals and sort ourselves according to affinities. In a democracy that part of me does not belong to the public at large. Only in a society invested in patrolling blackness down to the ontological level would it even be a question. A nation of free people will do as they will.
But I get ahead of myself. Even as an intellectual exercise, US society is so constricted by racialized thinking that it compartmentalizes its black citizens and the internal functions race serves. The thought of a society not defined by race must first go through the thought of dismantling racial structures. This is where the contemporary imagination, like the historical one, wants naturally to stop.
Just as the physical world has been segregated to minimize contact with one another, even when we do talk about race and racism we barricade the conversation as a special category apart from other spheres of existence. This allows us to talk periodically about the adverse effects of race as something separate from whatever catastrophe has recently unfolded, as opposed to a force, hidden as gravity, affecting the entire field of American life.
This mental and metaphysical segregation allows us first and foremost to avoid thinking about what race has produced in most areas of our lives, then to look for a few affirming exceptions, telling ourselves that this is really the rule. Even when we discuss the effects of racism directly, even when we say aloud that it touches every aspect of this society, we don’t actually apply that knowledge to the way we think about the society and act within it. We can point out that schools produce unequal outcomes, then go on about our day without doing anything to address it, fighting for a coveted spot within a system that we claim to know is broken. We recoil when we consider that it might require us to relinquish our own perceived privilege. We may say with our forebrain that we are all the same but primal conditioning produces involuntary reactions to the contrary. If breaking down the internal, individual forces that give rise to these larger social patterns is so difficult, what hope is there in doing so in the face of much larger forces?
We have been perfecting this avoidance for centuries. By the time the English in America declared independence, slavery was more than 150 years old. It was during the revolutionary generation that Americans first awoke to the magnitude of the issue. Four hundred years later, we are still doing everything in our power to keep kicking that can down time’s road, even when we tell ourselves we are having a national conversation about it. America has become expert at co-opting critiques of race and racism, and soothing its own conscience, without doing the real work of addressing the problems they have created.
Integration requires more than mere discussion. The idea of actively integrating the millions of excluded Americans is a goal that traces back to the end of the colonial era and the more forward-thinking members of the revolutionary generation.
It is a concept of the national order that was already deeply threatening, and so nearly impossible to imagine in the eighteenth century. It did not find its true voice until the next century, in the writer and orator Frederick Douglass and his sometimes friend Abraham Lincoln. It was Lincoln’s assassination that allowed the revanchist forces of an unapologetic South and their northern sympathizers to rewrite the history and goals of the Civil War. By the end of the war, Lincoln was not only opposed to slavery; he had also come to understand that abolishing slavery was only the beginning of the road to equality. Taken to its logical conclusion, this remains the most unsettling, radical idea in modern life, which is why we always stop short of its logical conclusions. A full third of the country, call them neo-Confederates, is fighting vehemently to roll back its partial conclusion. As I write this, the liberal contenders for the American presidency are still struggling to find a language that expresses support for the equality of all in practical terms palatable enough for the country at large to accept, without affirming full commitment to integration. They favor school desegregation but not busing, the only tool that has proven effective. They are against racial discrimination in law enforcement, but they dare not say anything that might upset the current paramilitary police state. The “not in my backyard” cowardice runs through every vein of US life when we dare to speak of dismantling the racist state we inherited. The result is an abstract support for integration while keeping the actuality of integration ever at bay.
What makes integration in America such a unique challenge, but also a distinct possibility, is the uniqueness of American history. Few countries have built a liberal democracy, devoted to enlightened thought, inside of which was constructed a colonial state devoted to the same exploitation, suffering, and abuse as feudal Europe’s overseas dominions, nearly all of which were apartheid states of minority rule or built in the aftermath of genocide.
America, as well, was all too recently an overtly colonial state of oppressor and oppressed. In common with other societies constructed along categories of whiteness and other, we find ourselves, as the Black Power generation asserted, in a postcolonial society. The Electoral College, which awarded disproportionate power to the slave states, is an artifact of this. In 2016 Hillary Clinton won nearly three million more votes than Donald Trump. Without overstating the procedural problem, it is literally true that we currently live under minority rule, unable to move beyond the most repressive forces in national life.
As counterintuitive as it sounds to call the United States a postcolonial nation, and as difficult as it may be to accept when talking about what is often called the most powerful empire in history, it is the proper frame to contextualize and understand the scale of what we face. The full truth of the matter is that no country in the modern era has yet overcome the effects of either colonizing or being colonized. This is our challenge.
When European colonization ended in the twentieth century, the French, the English, the Belgians, and the Germans could simply return home and draw high the bridge. When the Civil Rights Act at last defeated America’s internal colonialism, oppressed and oppressor were left sharing, always and ever, the same land. If it is a land in which white supremacy is once again ascendant, threatening the core of democracy, it is because it never truly went away. It was silent so long as it got its way, and the Left has been backing down in the face of antidemocratic white appeals to race for over a century.
Not facing it now means to continue living on different sides of the track, in different towns, separate and unequal in public spaces, as well as in the collective imaginations, even as we remain interdependent. The problem that the revolutionary generation always understood would be this country’s most difficult has been inescapably hard upon us, and so, fifty-five years after the Civil Rights Act, it remains. Even in America’s most liberal institutions and public spaces, what passes for integration is still only a surface representation, seldom a fully normal, mutually accountable interaction among equals.
For the moment we have settled for the tacit understanding that by allowing a few into majority-white spaces and places of power (in what we call meritocracy), we are collectively freed from the complex problems of the many, which is to say tens of million people in this country. There has always been a class of exceptional African American people in colonial societies, whose existence serves to buffer the interests and self-regard of the status quo from the suffering of the masses.
Adding to our confusion is the fact that we Americans have always weighed ourselves and our politics against the extreme. This creates the hidden gravity that, as it always has, pulls the allegedly more liberal side intimately near. The inner narrative is “We’re not like X” or “Y is way worse.” These are reactive not proactive positions, by which I simply mean we define ourselves by what we are not, not by who we are and what we wish to accomplish. Or, as Douglass reminded Lincoln every time he saw him, it is one thing to abolish slavery and another entirely to integrate the majority of black people into society. That is the challenge of this moment and the most meaningful test of the American future. We can face this fact or continue to tell ourselves increasingly baroque lies as the country ossifies once and for all into a partial democracy.
As the country grows more diverse, we have resorted to telling ourselves that shifting demographics will solve our problems, a fear that has led conservatives to want to build a wall around the country, enact new poll taxes, and gerrymander political districts to dilute the power of voters. But even without these nefarious, antidemocratic efforts, demographics alone will not solve the problem. It runs too deep, beyond our ability to see. The only balm that will make this wounded society whole is a new understanding of and broader commitment to integration. Symbolism, exceptionalism, hoping on a future victory that requires no courage in the present—are not enough.