Michael Chabon’s racial utopia (updated)

There were some good things and some bad things in Michael Chabon’s essay for the Times Magazine‘s last Sunday. Chabon starts by observing that his suprise at the reaction to O.J.’s acquittal was a “blinking indicator on my dashboard, letting me know that my connection to the lives and feelings of black people had been cut.” I think this is one of the good things in the essay, though several commenters rightly point out that the black response to O.J. was not monolithic. Chabon also identifies himself as a racist based on this separation from black communities, and this is good too, at least in the sense that more white people need to think and talk about their own racism in public if white America in general is to come anywhere near understanding white supremacy. (But see update below.)

I found the core of the essay more troubling. It’s about his youth in Columbia, Maryland, a planned community Chabon describes as “avowedly utopian in its aims” and intentionally “integrated.” I must say I didn’t buy Columbia as a racial utopia. (It’s worth noting that while the words “racial” and “utopia” do occur in the essay, they appear together only in the headline, which was presumably written by someone else.) Who built it? Who decided that people of color could, or should, move in? How were those families selected? Who was the mayor? Who was on the town council? Were POC heard in town meetings, and was their leadership welcomed? Did black families in Columbia tend to be as healthy as white ones, to have jobs that paid as well, to have the same money in the bank? I don’t know. But it seems to me that Chabon fetishizes proximity itself as the solution to racism. Living in Columbia, he says, “plunged [him] into intimacy with black people,” and he illustrates this with a cringe-inducing scene of his first-grade self touching and marveling at a black classmate’s hand. Brown on the back, pink on the palm—how exotic!

This leads to remiscences of “Brokeland,” the urban landscape between Berkeley and Oakland in California, with the black- and white-patronized vinyl record stores that inspired his new novel. Although he acknowledges that the record-store customers “had not bound up the nation’s racial wounds” by shopping in the same place, Chabon senses the presence of “what I lost on that journey from Columbia . . . the dream I had believed in, the closeness I once knew.”

Identifying its effects on us, as white people, is certainly a legitimate way to talk about racism. And I’m sure Chabon’s thoughts on the subject are more complex than could be conveyed in two thousand words (it’s taken me five hundred just to get this far). But his essay struck me as being exclusively about what so-called racial utopia was like for him—the white man—and not enough about the way his (and my) whiteness perpetuates the very divisions we claim to be anxious to eliminate.

UPDATE: Here are Chabon’s remarks on his own racism; the more I think about this, the more uncomfortable I become.

And on that morning of the Simpson verdict, I discovered, to my shame, to my absolute wonder and horror, that in the course of that journey I had, somehow, become a racist. To qualify as a racist you don’t have to go to the extreme of slurring, stereotyping or discriminating against people of another race. All you have to do, as I realized on that autumn morning in 1995, is feel completely disconnected from them. All you have to do is look at those people in a kind of almost scientific surprise, as I looked at the African-Americans I passed in the streets of L.A. in the days after the Simpson verdict, and realize you have been passing them by in just this way, for months, for years at a time. They were here all along, thinking what they think now, believing what they now believe, and somehow you failed to notice.

As usual, this definition of racism by a prominent white commentator fails to take into account the systemic racism that corrupts the American experience for all of us. It’s also disingenous—or, rather (since I don’t doubt his sincerity), he lets himself off too easily: “absolute wonder and horror”? This reminds me of Dan Savage’s immortal formulation: HTH (How’d That Happen?). To quote:

He may be peeing on himself, but it wasn’t really his idea, he writes: “I don’t know how this happened—one morning I just did it.” How’d That Happen?!

Same here. One day I just woke up racist. HTH?

ANOTHER UPDATE (12/9/12): An advance copy of Telegraph Avenue fell into my hands last month and I gave it a highly ambivalent read. My reaction to the novel was similar to my reaction to Chabon’s essay: the prose was incredible (and funny, which I love), the character portraits were meticulously detailed, but the racial politics of the whole set-up made me a little itchy. Contrary to my assumption at the start of this post, Telegraph Avenue has nothing to do with white supremacy (i.e., the structures of power that relegate black people to second-class status all over America). It regards race relations in the U.S. as an unfortunate state of affairs (Chabon is perfection on the agonizing of whites trying to parse their own racism) which can probably be solved, not without difficulty, by all of us getting to know one another better. That, to me, is an insufficient representation of the problem.