At an upscale dinner party recently, conversation turned to East Palo Alto and New Haven. Each is an oasis of struggle right up next to an especially tony neighbor. "Thank god for bubbles," someone at the dinner table said.
It was a stunningly honest and revealing thing to say. Given the vast inequality of American life, it would be ridiculous not to acknowledge that bubbles are a survival mechanism for anyone with any reason to fear falling. Of course, that also means that bubbles are a survival mechanism for the vast inequality of American life, too. The psychology of bubbles, it seems, is similar to the way we almost forget we are going to die in order to carry on with everyday living.
I started college at Stanford in 1992, the year East Palo Alto was named per-capita murder capital of the nation. I never worked to change the shock I felt the few times I crossed that border. I lived entirely inside the Stanford bubble. It would hardly be right for me to respond to the dinner-party comment with outrage.
Yet it set off sorrow. It made me think of back-to-school this week in Seattle. This is a city where the schools are becoming less equal. Some families—mostly white families of means—are ferrying their children to schools outside their neighborhoods, schools statistically safer and better. The busing system has been replaced by the bubble system.
And while bubbles are a psychologically understandable phenomenon, the question is one of access: You either have access to living inside the bubble or you don't. I'm not trying to be simplistic. These families, on both sides of this school issue, are not abstractions to me. They are my friends. But they are not living in the same worlds.
The only thing I know to combat bubbleism is paying a different kind of attention, the kind that allows the walls of the bubble to become and remain visible. In this month's Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates casts a glare on those walls with his ferocious piece "Fear of a Black President." I can't recommend strongly enough reading the whole thing; it's long and worth it. The magazine also has a 5-minute video interview with Coates, in which he talks candidly about the anger behind the piece, and the everyday crazymaking of trying to distinguish between racially motivated rudeness and just regular rudeness.
With the title "Fear of a Black President," the fear that Coates is referring to is not only a generalized American fear of black men, or the racial upset of a culture whose white majority is about to pass into the minority. The other fear is the fear of the president himself, or less that primary emotion and more the strategy of responses he employs as a result of navigating a lifetime of the everyday bullying of racism.
The tough part, as Coates writes, is that the bully of racism since the Civil Rights Movement has become more like a ghost: harder to apprehend but capable of penetrating all kinds of walls. Obama has had to be not only "twice as good," as the old saying goes, but "half as black," too.
Every time he has talked about race during his presidency, Coates details, it has backfired on him. A study shows that Obama has discussed race less than any other Democratic president since 1961. Rather, Obama has had to exchange any performance of blackness in order to exercise real power. If that's not the troublingly symbolic opposite of black power, I don't know what is. It is instead the suggestion that there can still be no such thing as visibly empowered blackness.
An African American acquaintance shared with me his feeling that many white folks who read the Coates piece probably will not make the imaginative leap to seeing that their co-workers and friends of color are in the same position as Obama. That he, and the Chinese American guy in the next cubicle, say, is expending that same exasperating energy on race matters that folks in the bubble don't even notice. That contained within integration is very much still a double standard, regardless of the election of the first black president—and without taking away any of the power of that historic landmark, either.
Maybe the most moving section of Coates's piece is toward the end, in his conversations with Shirley Sherrod, the farm collective organizer who became an official in Obama's Department of Agriculture until she was fired. She was fired because a right-wing commentator posted a video of her giving a speech sounding like an angry woman of color getting back at white farmers. In fact, the video was manipulated and the speech—and her entire life's work—was just the opposite. (Sherrod, a fighter for Civil Rights, nevertheless parted ways from SNCC when it moved toward black power in the '60s.) Glenn Beck ended up defending her and attacking Obama. This is how racism works now.
Coates writes about the outrage toward Rev. Jeremiah Wright for his "God Damn America" sermons. He puts the sermons in their context:
And even those black Americans who embrace the tradition of God Damn America do so not with glee but with deep pain and anguish. Both [Harvard Law professor Randall] Kennedy’s father and Wright were military men. My own father went to Vietnam dreaming of John Wayne, but came back quoting Malcolm X. The poet Lucille Clifton once put it succinctly:
They act like they don’t love their country
what it is
is they found out
their country don’t love them.
Taking a chapter from the American tradition Coates describes, maybe it's time to change "thank god for bubbles" to God damn bubbles. Because goddamn bubbles are no way to get by, and you can feel that whether you're in one or out of one.