The New Double Consciousness: Seeing Race in a Post Obama America

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Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester [Photo: David Kramer] from Discovering Frederick Douglass

A graduate of the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, George Payne teaches philosophy at Finger Lakes Community College and is the founder of Gandhi Earth Keepers International.

The New Double Consciousness: Seeing Race in a Post Obama America

Double consciousness is a term coined by W.E.B. Du Bois. In The Souls of Black Folk, the author and philosopher was referring to the political and existential challenge of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes” of a racist white society, and “measuring oneself by the means of a nation that looked back in contempt.”

The double consciousness that Du Bois wrote about is a particular response to the horrific legacy of slavery on generations of African American families. This same legacy has given birth to a new type of double consciousness that is prevalent in America today. Every citizen — whether they know it consciously or not — is expected to hold two diametrically opposed truths at the same time. On the one hand, they are taught to understand that race is one of the most significant factors in any room. Yet, on the other hand, they are told that race is essentially a baseless and perhaps even dangerous idea to believe in.

This bi-polar view creates tremendous angst and confusion in society. At the same time people are told that race is not grounded in biology and genetics, it becomes vividly real once people talk about it and live their lives as if it is real. Ultimately, the failure to see the world through the lens of race often blinds people to the suffering caused by personal and institutional bigotry..

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In 1905, W. E. B. Du Bois and others gathered in Fort Erie, Canada, beginning the Niagara Movement

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Austin Steward’s portrait, by Shawn Dunwoody, under the Interstate 490 bridge over West Main Street. from Austin Steward’s Legacy is the Pride of Rochester [Photo: George C. Payne]

However, as one narrows their focus to better see the world through the lens of race, they often fail to see how every human being is designed to be a unique individual. Every human being is a collection of experiences, thoughts, and dreams. To be human is to be shaped by environmental conditions, educational influences, religious exposure. It is to be moved and transformed by forces outside the willful control of our autonomy. To confine a person to their particular shade of pigmentation is a gross simplification of who they are as a being in evolution.That said, there is not a single vocation that a person of color does not have access to. There have been minority teachers and professors, authors and composers, inventors and engineers, astronomers, architects, CEOs, Oscar winners, head football coaches, presidential cabinet members, Joint Chief of Staff officers, Supreme Court Justices, and a President of the United States of America.

If we are honest with ourselves, we can see that people of color have always had these positions. In fact, they had them thousands of years before whites. The reason we have architecture and mathematics is because of black and brown people. The reason we have organized religion and jurisprudence is because of black and brown people. The reason that we have a formal educational system is because of black and brown people. The reason that we have civilization is because of black and brown people. Where were the first laws of human beings crafted? Where were the first instruments made? Who engineered the first tools?

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Douglass monument in Highland Bowl in Rochester, NY (Photo by George C. Payne) from Frederick Douglass in Rochester: A Gallery of Images and Words

Today, despite this distinguished history, race and racism still has an impact on everything from the quality of a woman’s prenatal care to the likelihood that someone will experience police brutality and mass incarceration. Did you know that the African- American male lives 5 years less than the average white American male? Did you know that 1 in every 15 African- American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men? Or that unarmed black people were killed at 6x the rate of unarmed whites in 2015? Or that for every level of educational attainment, black Americans have unemployment rates that are similar to or higher than those of less educated white Americans?

Du Bois said

Strange, is it not, my brothers, how often in America those great watchwords of human energy – ‘Be strong!’ ‘Know thyself!’ ‘Hitch your wagon to a star!’ – how often these die away into dim whispers when we face these seething millions of black men? And yet do they not belong to them? Are they not their heritage as well as yours?

Today, unlike in Du Bois’ time, citizens must see with the eyes of unconditional equality and through the eyes of hidden racial assumptions. All of us must learn to see two worlds: one in color and one in B&W. We must see them as equally real and equally valid.

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Dr. Martin Luther King in Rochester, January 8th, 1958 from On Dr. Charles T. Lunsford and the house where he entertained Martin Luther King Jr

I believe in Liberty for all men: the space to stretch their arms and their souls, the right to breathe and the right to vote, the freedom to choose their friends, enjoy the sunshine, and ride on the railroads, uncursed by color; thinking, dreaming, working as they will in a kingdom of beauty and love.

W.E.B. Du Bois

George Payne

SEE ALSO

Revisiting Rochester black history