President Obama’s remarks about what it is to be an African-American in America have disturbed those who prefer to believe our nation is color-blind. That was always a myth, like the notion we are a “melting pot” of nationalities, all heaving together toward a common end. Even in New York, the most cosmopolitan of cities, racial groups tend to keep to themselves and differences survive across generations.
The president’s description of how it feels to be a black man in America — routinely suspected of being a criminal, followed around stores by security guards, hearing car doors lock as he crosses the street, watching women clutch their purses tight in elevators — chime with similar experiences related by others set apart from the rest by dint of their skin color.
You can hear the same sorry stories from black visitors to America, shocked to discover that here, far from being a true democracy where everyone is treated the same, it is common for taxi drivers to ignore them, or bars to serve them last, or for public officials to treat them badly simply because they are black. This soft apartheid in America has been brought to the surface by the death of Trayvon Martin. It is a salutary fact that even the most powerful man in the world is treated with suspicion in his own land simply because he is black. After 50 years, Rosa Parks has yet to finish her journey.
There are black racists, too. The most virulent racist I have ever heard was a hostile young black Baptist minister in Harlem convinced that America is run by a secret cabal of Jews. But the president’s comments have primarily exposed deep fissures among conservatives. In all conservative economic theory, from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek and beyond, the market operates without prejudice. The price curve has no third dimension of race. In practice, however, many advocates for the free market believe it is legitimate to treat people differently because of their color.
Black conservatives find themselves in an unhappy position anomalous to gay conservatives, or “Log Cabin Republicans,” during the tempestuous debate about gay marriage, and have discovered that a rift has opened between them and their white counterparts. After I suggested that the Martin killing was largely about race, one prominent black conservative told me about a reaction to his blog post that also cited race as a key factor in Martin’s death. “As ours is an almost exclusively conservative audience, the reaction to it has been overwhelmingly hostile,” he wrote.