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White Friends, Black Friends: The Personal Nature of Racial Politics

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We have been working together for over eight years now. We come from different backgrounds (personally and professionally), but we share a common vision for advancing racial justice by learning (and sharing) through employing the most contemporary social science research theories and methods to the study of race, politics and communication. As regular readers of our weekly blog know, we try to provide a unified perspective on current events each week. That is, except in very rare circumstances, we put forth analysis that is a representation of our collective thoughts and application of social science research. Occasionally, however, we write separately, either because we disagree with one another (see here and here, for instance) or because the topic is primarily relevant from one of our perspectives (see here or here).

This week, Charlton provides his unique perspective on interracial friendships in this era of heightened awareness of race and racism. It's not that Stephen has nothing to offer to this discussion (after all, he has interracial friendships -- Charlton being the most valued -- as well), but as you will discover, what Charlton has to say represents a perspective that we decided is best presented from his voice alone. As always, we look forward to your thoughtful comments.

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Race. Politics. Race politics. The politics of race. Identity politics.

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Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill is perhaps most famous for popularizing the phrase, "all politics is local." Those of us who venture into that tangled web where race and politics intersect are especially reminded that all politics is also, personal. In fact, no politics are more personal than racial politics (and the politics of gender and sexual orientation are equally so).

Today's electoral politics are -- in the words of Thomas Hobbes -- nasty, brutish and short. But at the end of the day, there is a winner and a loser. Life goes on as the thrill of victory eventually ebbs for the former as the sting of defeat does for the latter. Members of Congress do legislative battle with competing bills, ingenious maneuvers, pointed hearings where they skewer opposing colleagues and roast them with fiery floor speeches meant to paint their adversaries as the worst among us -- from heartless baby killers to Machiavellian demagogues and all else in between. Still, they emerge able to shake each other's hands, extol the virtues of bipartisanship, and then share slippery oysters and a sip of whiskey at Old Ebbitt's.

Those of us who willfully surround ourselves with the critical minutiae that race bring to everyday life sometimes like to think we are playing the same game.

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From the verbal beat-downs we apply to modern racial rabble-rousers like Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin or Glenn Beck (I specify "verbal," lest any of these folks mistake me for just some Black thug like Barack Obama who inspires Black violence against White people), to the daily debates we engage in over controversial race-based social policies like affirmative action, school desegregation or health care. From our heated discussions on national television designed to convince the public of the folly and fallacies of post-racialism, colorblind ideology and the like to our attempts to get youthful undergraduates to understand the subtleties of modern racism, persistent discrimination, and notions of White privilege, we (more a personal projection than a factual generalization) often like to think that we can immerse ourselves in these murky waters and emerge unsullied and unaffected. We sometimes fool ourselves into believing that our engagement with the stuff of racial politics is a wholly intellectual enterprise -- participation in a kind of rational discourse from which we can simply redirect our attention when we wish not to talk about it anymore. We sometimes like to think that what we do and what we talk about exists primarily in that mystical abstract world of ideas.

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Stephen Maynard Caliendo is associate professor of political science at North Central College. Charlton McIlwain is associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. They are co-authors of the forthcoming book "Race (more...)

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