Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul made a major speech at traditionally black Howard University in Washington, D.C. last week. To say the least the reviews of the senator’s speech were mixed. Comments ranged from “condescending and intellectually dishonest” to “nervy” and “sincere.”
Comedian Jon Stewart joked that Paul “fell asleep on the Green Line and woke up” at Howard and, while his history lesson was suspect, to say the least, I think the senator gets some points for even thinking about taking his libertarian infused Republican message to a generally hostile audience. His motives may have been sound, but with our great unresolved issue motives only carry you so far.
Paul’s point, of course, was to demonstrate GOP “outreach” to a segment of America that seems to have written off his party. Sen. Paul may have been better served to first see the remarkable play I saw last weekend, since he might have learned that our racial and class issues don’t lend themselves to speeches from behind a podium, no matter how politically correct those speeches attempt to be.
Clybourne Park, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony award winning play by Bruce Norris, packs all the trouble we have as a society in dealing with race, class, political correctness, politics and how we live in America – together and apart – into a tidy two hours. Others have said it, so I will too – Clybourne Park is brilliant. You’ll be laughing, sad, nodding in agreement, snickering nervously in disbelief and, probably like me, walking out into the night thinking “we have a long, long way to go.”
The play, which also won the British version of the Tony, is set in a single house in the fictional Clybourne Park neighborhood of Chicago. The first half of the play takes place in 1959. The second half could have taken place yesterday afternoon. In a brilliant analysis of the play and the state of race in America, the former theater critic turned political analyst Frank Rich wrote in New York Magazine:
In 1959, a three-generation black family from a ghetto on the South Side has just purchased (the house) and is preparing to move in—over the objections of a neighborhood association that wants to keep its enclave lily-white. By 2009, that battle over integration is half-forgotten ancient history. Clybourne Park, like so many other urban neighborhoods nationwide, had long ago turned black in the wake of wholesale white flight to the suburbs. The house has since devolved into a graffiti-defaced teardown, battered by decades of poverty, crime, drugs, and neglect. But lo and behold, the neighborhood is “changing” again. A young white suburban couple is moving back into the rapidly gentrifying Clybourne Park. It’s convenient for work, and there’s a new Whole Foods besides. The only hitch is that middle-class African-Americans in the present-day neighborhood association are as hostile to white intruders as their racist white antecedents were to black homebuyers 50 years earlier.
The ensuing discussion among the black and white characters touches on almost every important cultural issue and leaves it all, as we must know, messy and unresolved. Clybourne Park will disabuse anyone who still thinks, even after Barack Obama’s two elections, that we are living in a post-racial America, which brings us back to the senator from Kentucky.
At one point in his talk to the over-achieving students at Howard Paul asked: “How did the party that elected the first black U.S. Senator, the party that elected the first 20 African-American Congressmen, how did that party become a party that now loses 95 percent of the black vote? How did the Republican Party, the party of the Great Emancipator, lose the trust and faith of an entire race? From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, for a century, most black Americans voted Republican. How did we lose that vote?”
The answer, of course, is part of modern American political history. Liberal Democrats and many northern Republicans embraced civil rights from the 1940’s to the 1960’s, while many southern Democrats didn’t. Today is Jackie Robinson Day, the day Americans and (baseball fans) celebrate the breaking of the game’s color line. It’s worth reflecting on the historic fact that the great Robinson backed Richard Nixon in 1960, while convinced that the GOP was more committed to civil rights than a Democratic Party still dominated at the time by southern racists. Real events changed that expectation.
By 1968 Nixon was driving the racial wedge deep into the country’s politics with a “southern strategy” designed to take the conservative south away from Democrats by explicitly appealing to white voters with a message that hardly concealed its racist undertones. As a result many southern whites abandoned the GOP as the region transformed into a solid base for the Republican Party as it had once been for Democrats. The party of Lincoln and ending slavery became the party of Strom Thurmond and “welfare queens” and blacks, no big surprise, started voting for Democrats in droves. Sen. Paul’s speech last week essentially ignored this history. Had he seen Clybourne Park he might have approached his subject in a much different way. At least I’d like to hope so.
The reason Sen. Paul laid an egg at Howard, and the reason we still struggle so much with race and class in America, is that we have largely failed to grapple honestly, openly and historically with our troubled past. Racism, there is no nice way to say it, is deeply baked into our history. The playwright Bruce Norris is essentially saying we are all weighted down with our deep biases based on our notions (and history) of territory and conflict. He admits to being a “liberal whitey” who is out to demolish politically correct approaches to issues that are way too big for set speeches that avoid fundamental issues.
From the Constitution’s “compromise” over slavery and counting blacks at three-fifths of a person to current battles over the Voting Rights Act and voter suppression the old battles over race and rights continues even as the first black man occupies the Oval Office. We have a lot of work to do.
The brilliant play Clybourne Park does not tie it all up neatly as the curtain falls because, as Frank Rich has written, it is a play that is designed to provoke and frankly is without much hope. Still, art can sometimes do what politics can’t – cause us to think deeply about our situation. The racism that is so deeply baked into our society and politics is not susceptible to better messaging, which, as Rand Paul found out at Howard University, is at the heart of the GOP’s current response to its problem with African-American voters. Better messaging starts with better listening and not ignoring history but understanding it.
We have a lot of work to do and many of us are comfortable with what that means. First we must deal honestly with the conflict between who we say we are and who we really are. It’s a very unsettling conversation. Go see Clybourne Park. Think about it. Talk to your kids about it. Talk to a politician about it. Perhaps really addressing our nation’s long unresolved issue takes so long because every American – of every shade and at every economic level – must address the hard and historic issues in the heart before they can hope to be settled in our politics. Clybourne Park is so powerful because it forces us, at least for two hours, to listen to who we are.