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The Color Line: White People Think We Can Put Race Behind Us and Black People Don’t

Not long ago I visited Memphis, Tennessee. There are two major tourist attractions there. One is Graceland, a shrine to a demigod named Elvis. The other is the National Civil Rights Museum. I’ll bet you can guess which is the most popular.

I had the weird experience of visiting both on the same day—and I suffered extreme cultural whiplash. One is a place where a bunch of rockin’ good ‘ol boys ate fried banana sandwiches and shot holes in the walls with no mamma to tell them no. The other is a fine museum housed in the Lorraine Motel—a perfectly preserved artifact whose exterior looks like it did the day Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered there. It looks so much like a functioning motel that I met at least one person who tried to check in.

Graceland, with its tour busses and endless souvenir shops, would never be mistaken for an ordinary place. It’s a high temple of kitsch culture where you see what a million bucks worth of Naugahyde and shag carpet looks like. At the more understated Civil Rights museum, you wander through exhibits that put you in the middle of the black experience in America. There’s no Elvis Cadillac, but you can sit on Rosa Parks’s bus; and you can peer into the room Dr. King was in moments before his assassination—it’s just the way he left it.

Elvis might have sung Heartbreak Hotel, but the Lorraine is the real deal—the site of a national tragedy, the place where “the dream” died. It is an archive of a history that is powerful, and one we should all know better.

When so-called “race” problems come up, you hear people say, “We’ve got to put race behind us.” When I hear that, I know one thing: the speaker is white. That’s because white people think they don’t have race. Other people have race: brown people, black people, yellow people, red people, foreign people... you know, the people who are constantly complaining. But we white Americans like to think of ourselves as race neutral—we’re like glass, invisible when it comes to race. The fact that we can live with the illusion is a testament to the power we hold. Well, hello America: Elvis is dead and race lives.

But one of the things that becomes inescapable when you’re standing in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis is that what we think of as “black” history is also “white” history. The experience of African Americans cannot be told without both slaves and slave merchants, without Abe Lincoln and the Ku Klux Klan, without Martin Luther King and James Earl Ray. By shifting the lens from a traditional white perspective—where race doesn’t matter—and looking at the American experience from a Civil Rights perspective—where race does matter—you find a storyline that is shocking, agonizing, inspiring, and profound. You realize how impossible it is to banish race from today’s problems and discourse because it is so much a part of what we’ve fought about, so much a part of what we’ve done to each other. Or let me say it this way: so much a part of what we’re still fighting about, so much a part of what we’re still doing to each other.

To put race behind us is to bury the truth.