Commentary: A real race discussion is necessary

Regrettably, this country begins a new year still haunted and encumbered by an old and all-too-familiar albatross: the issue of race.

It is a musty heavy cloak we in the United States of America simply can't seem to shed.

No matter the subject — the nation's dynamic new president, the pathetic politics of Illinois and that state governor's selection of a new U.S. senator or, of all things, the divisive melodramatic meltdown of the Dallas Cowboys this season — the much dreaded R-word is definitely on the minds, if not the lips, of many Americans.

A longtime friend who is a jazz pianist and composer once wrote a special song that he premiered on a public television show I produced for Juneteenth. Robert Sanders (no relation) titled his piece 'We've Been Caught Up in this Color Thang Too Long.'

That was way back in the 1980s, and that lyric still rings true.

But with the election of President Barack Obama, a man whose skin tone will be a daily reminder of our country's diversity, perhaps we can get around to talking about race openly, maturely and honestly, rather than whispering our thoughts in like company.

The president-elect faced the issue head-on during the campaign, delivering a powerful address on the subject and using his own biracial experience as an example of a poignant lesson from which we all can learn. Still, there were those who didn't want to hear it; didn't like the very idea that such a conversation should take place in public, if you will.

And yet the very fact that Obama resigned his Senate seat to assume his new office raises point-blank the observation that his had been the only face of color in the 100-member body.

That fact certainly wasn't lost on some people in Illinois who immediately began to say that Obama's replacement in the upper chamber of the Congress should be black.

And, last week, an embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has been accused of trying to sell the Senate seat to the highest bidder, stunned even cynical Illinois residents when he announced the appointment of former state Attorney General Roland Burris, a 71-year-old, well-qualified and respected African-American, to replace Obama in the Senate.

Burris surprised many by accepting the appointment, especially after Democratic leaders in the Senate and Obama have said that any selection by Blagojevich should not be accepted by the Democratic caucus.

To make matters even more racially sticky, Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush basically dared the senators not to seat a black man duly appointed by the sitting governor. Rush, as Clarence Thomas did when he had his back against the wall during confirmation hearings, threw out the L-word.

"I would ask you to not hang or lynch the appointee as you castigate the appointer, and separate the appointee from the appointer," Rush said during the news conference in which Blagojevich made the announcement.

The congressman continued with this challenge: "There are no African-Americans in the Senate, and I don't think that anyone, any U.S. senator who is sitting right now, would want to go on record to deny one African-American from being seated in the U.S. Senate. I don't think they want to go on record doing that."

For the next few days, or weeks, race will be at the center of this latest controversy.

Frankly, Burris should be seated, not because he's black but because the state Legislature failed to call a special election (which it could have done) and left in place the governor's authority to make that decision.

Now when it comes to the Dallas Cowboys, some folk only see the blue and silver uniforms, but I guarantee there are many who see black and white.

During the recent controversy involving wide receivers Terrell Owens, Roy Williams and Patrick Crayton versus quarterback Tony Romo and tight end Jason Witten, the quarterback was accused of favoring his friend Witten by throwing more passes to him when others were open.

On the surface that's just a conflict of positions, right? All receivers want the ball more, just as running backs often complain about not having enough carries in a game.

But believe me — because I heard it — there were plenty of people taking note that the wide receivers were black and the two close friends on the team, Romo and Witten, were white.

I heard talk about the Cowboys of old that most certainly treated black players differently — in pay, in team promotions and in which players were touted for paid endorsements.

It was often joked that a third-string white guy would always get a commercial before the top black player would even be considered.

A lot of folk thought those days were over after Jerry Jones bought the team and, frankly, I think they are.

But that doesn't keep people from wondering, and talking, every time a new controversy arises.

It is an issue that America's Team, like the rest of America, must deal with.

So, let's get it out in the open, y'all, and try to get this albatross from around the nation's neck.

Let's begin the one conversation no one wants to have. Now!

We've been caught up in this color thing too long.