In his momentous speech on Tuesday, Barack Obama invoked a psychoanalytic term to describe the task facing the country: "working through."
The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through -- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.
In psychoanalysis "working through" is what one does to deal with loss or trauma. If one doesn't work through the trauma, one is bound to remain stuck in it, stuck in a repetition compulsion that comes without conscious bidding and causes further damage. This psychoanalytic lesson is so widely accepted that a presidential candidate can invoke it without anyone raising an eyebrow.
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
...Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America -- to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.
Obama was calling on people to stop ignoring the problem of race, to stop simplifying and amplifying stereotypes. His speech was a signal that he was changing course and would start paying more attention, instead of saying that his presidential race is not about race. The bizarre thing is that a country still traumatized by race can't seem to unite behind someone of color unless "the race thing" is not front and center. But working through the trauma requires making it a focal point in some way or another.
Just paying attention isn't enough. To the extent that the trauma is below the surface of consciousness, some work needs to be done to bring it to the surface -- in a constructive and not destructive way. The psychoanalytic way was through the "talking cure."
Can we find or create a metaphorical couch big enough or safe enough for the country to work through this issue?