I still have white friends. But after the exhausting presidential campaign, I'm not sure what we'll talk about anymore.
Some topics are safe: their kids, our elderly parents and their problems, the skunk and deer colonizing our block. But I tiptoe around other subjects, such as the state of our retirement plans or our fear of falling ill. Throughout the campaign, I saw these issues ignite arguments over "handouts" and "entitlements" and the burdens that hard-working Americans carry.
The 2012 campaign uncovered a nasty truth: Four years after the country elected an African-American president, racial prejudice flows through our national discourse.
Sometimes it was obvious, like Newt Gingrich calling Barack Obama a "food-stamp president." Sometimes, it's more subtle, like Paul Ryan blaming "urban voters" for his ticket's defeat this November. Issue after issue veered into wink-wink, nod-nod messages about the haves and have-nots, with the haves seeing themselves as defenders of core values.
In another time or election, what happened in the voting booth would have stayed there. But I belong to the 93 percent of African-Americans who voted for Barack Obama (along with 70 percent of Asians and Latinos). And the fact that 39 percent of white voters supported Obama means I don't assume my white friends share my joy over the president's re-election.
I never bought the notion of a post-racial America. I didn't believe that 200 years of accumulated racial sentiments would vanish simply because an African-American occupied the Oval Office. But in 2008, I did allow myself to hope that maybe Americans could work together, not against each other. Lord knows we had a crisis uniting us: Everyone was broke.
Four years later, that wish seems naïve. An Associated Press survey found anti-black sentiments have increased since 2008.
Now, when I'm with white friends, I'm afraid of approaching the edge of a chasm. Will commiserating about a crazy doctor's bill spark a rant against socialized health care? Will concern about a string of part-time jobs kindle angry arguments that the administration plans to kill "job creators?"
So I keep it light. Instead of looking them in the face, I give them the side eye. In the midst of the conversation, I look around, sizing them up, wondering if they're standing with me or on some other side.
Call it cynicism if you want. Call me prejudiced, too. I'll unhappily admit to that. I only know that, after 18 exhausting months of coded and not-so-coded behavior and language, I'm jaded and skeptical.
It's not the "Nobama" signs and "Nope" bumper stickers I saw during the campaign. I chuckled at those clever reworkings of the president's name and slogan. And administration opponents had a right to question the explanation of the attack at Benghazi. Maybe if the campaign had centered on policies and practices, I'd have felt more comfortable talking politics.
But that's not what happened. It was no laughing matter when empty chairs were found hanging from nooses in Virginia and Texas — allusions to Clint Eastwood at the Republican National Convention, addressing a chair as if it were the president. Nor was it funny when a Mitt Romney supporter wore a "Put the White Back in the White House" T-shirt at a rally in Lancaster, Ohio.
I thought I was alone in my disillusionment until my friend, Leslie Ansley, posted on Facebook.
"I don't know how much more of all this race hatred I can possibly stand," she wrote. "I'm losing faith in my fellow man — the white ones, anyway.
"In short," she added, "all that I'm seeing and hearing has made me more racist than I ever thought possible. Because I'm feeling defensive. Angry. Hurt. Incredulous."
Someone objected in the comments that being angry about racism is vastly different from being racist. But I understood Leslie's pain. Racism hardens the hearts of both its practitioners and its victims.
Hiding wasn't an option. Avoiding the news media is difficult, but slipping past social media is almost impossible. My Facebook and Twitter networks hummed with photos, links and stories. The slights and the signs were broadcast constantly, and they took their toll.
I gasped when I saw the photo of an Elyria resident raising double middle fingers as the president's bus passed through Lorain County last July. He wasn't wearing a white robe and hood, but the defiance in his wide-legged stance made me wonder: Would he have raised those fingers if a Bill Clinton or Al Gore had been the candidate?
The website selling "Don't Re-Nig in 2012" bumper stickers stunned me.
And I had plenty to ask Tea Party members who vowed to "take our country back." From whom? From brown-skinned folks like me, born and raised here? From others who insisted on enlarging the word "American" so it wasn't a synonym for white?
Take the country where? To 1962, when I was a kid in Nashville? I watched protestors occupy sidewalks and lunch counters. Now we call them heroes and honor them during Black History Month. When I was a girl, the polite phrase in Tennessee was "outside agitators," as in "those civil-rights agitators riling up our colored people." Never mind that "colored people" were housing and feeding the "agitators" and marching alongside them.
The folks benefiting from the status quo viewed life from their perspective, and we viewed it from ours. They were Americans, not us. Although our labor built the nation, we weren't allowed to wear its name.
I learned what all Negro children learned back then: Don't take whites at face value. It was safer to give them the side eye, to assess them and your circumstances before opening your mouth.
But the "colored water" signs came off the fountains, and the restrooms were differentiated by gender only, not race. I read about whites such as Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and Viola Liuzzo, who were killed while fighting for civil rights.
Although I was only 10 or 11, I picked up another lesson: Negroes and whites could stand together. Negroes and whites could look each other in the face, and even be friends. Not mere "how ya doing" acquaintances, but secret-swapping, telephone-calling, stand-by-you-stand-by-me friends.
But that was then, when "We shall overcome" promised that one day, Americans would walk hand in hand. Nowadays, I'm not so sure — especially when John Sununu accuses Colin Powell of supporting the president because Powell and Obama are both African-Americans.
The post-election analysis shows a country divided. Folks have chosen sides. So I'm limiting myself to small talk with my white friends, at least until I figure where they — and I — are really coming from.