In terms of race relations in the United States, some imagined that President Obama's election was proof positive that "change" had indeed come. But a recent Pew Research Center poll indicates that confidence in race relations has been declining. Further, a recent Washington Post / ABC news poll shows that "African Americans' views on achieving racial equality have become more pessimistic" since Obama's inauguration.
One need not seek counsel of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Al Sharpton or Jessie Jackson to believe that racial issues continue to strain the fabric of America. One can simply remember the "beer summit" of 2009. Or, better yet, the news coverage of Tiger Woods; not only his recent scandal (a sex scandal / vehicle accident that gets detoured into a race discussion even here on Intrepid Media), but even as far back as his being "Cablinasian."
If you really think about it, Tiger shouldn't even have to dignify the question of his race with a response. But I guess that's par for the course in America (pun intended). In fact, we are all going to be asked our race this year on the 2010 United States Census. And, you'll have more options than ever, since the redesigned questionnaire lists 15 racial categories, as well as places to write in specific races not listed on the form. So this year, Tiger can in fact fill in "Cablinasian."
Tiger jokes aside, the racial stuff that really been troubling me is stuff coming from the mouths of the very politicians supposed to be helping advance race relations in our country: read, elected Democrats. It was revealed that Nevada Senator, Harry Reid, verbally speculated that Obama's presidential campaign was likely to be successful because he is a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."
But he wasn't alone. Former vice-presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro, resigned her post from Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign after stating: "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color), he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept." Even former president Bill Clinton, dubbed America's "first black president", said of Obama's campaign that "A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee".
Let's not pretend that race hasn't come a long way. Jim Crow laws and other legal barriers once blocking African-Americans have been abolished; use of dogs, hoses and lynchings are by-and-large a thing of the past. But the races are not acting as one.
Tina Nole, the producer of the Ron Reagan show, recently wrote a piece that considers the possibility that even a lifetime Democrat like Harry Reid may be a closet racist. She noted that how Reid, in spite of being "... consistently lauded for his policy stances on both race and social justice issues of disproportionate impact on African-Americans ... used racially-charged terms to describe the now-President of the United States and his standing with white voters". Nole surmises that these comments "... indicate that, though he doesn't mean to be, somewhere, deep down, he is one kind of racist."
So, if there really is some repressed racial tension that even apparently tolerant individuals have inside, that they may not even know about, how do you even try to fix that?
I don't have an answer. But I do have a story. I was a white middle class kid who grew up in a mostly white suburb outside of Raleigh, North Carolina in the 80s and early 90s. For public school, my neighborhood was bussed downtown close to an hour one way to schools that would have been mostly without white students, and even with our attendance, white students were in the minority. To say that we all blended well would be an exaggeration; but in retrospect, I estimate that a lot of the troubles bewteen the students weren't due to racial tension. I call it more of a problem trifecta:
(1) Money. The kids from my neighborhood were on a different socio-economic plane;
(2) Geography. We all grew up far apart from each other.
Granted, both arguably products of historical racial problems, but that was far beyond our control. But if and when a problem broke out between a local kid and one of us, battle lines usually were drawn by neighborhood, which meant, we were divided generally into black vs. white. Which then completed the problem trifecta;
(3) The attempted solution. The school's administration viewed these disputes always as being racially motivated at the core. Therefore, in addition to detention and the usual, they would employ various attempts at racial sensitivity trainings in an attempt to help us get along better.
However, it usually made us worse, arming us with racial epithets we may never have known otherwise. It taught us why we distrusted, and I specifically recall coming away less with the feeling of "we can change the future", and more with the feeling of "well, I that explains why we don't like each other; I guess there's not much I can do to fix that." And then went right back to our neighborhoods, perhaps something learned, but not wholly resolved.
Mistakes like those of Reid, Ferraro and Clinton, show that in spite of how much progress we've made in racial relations, we still have not learned all our lessons. Lessons not learned manifest themselves in the form of tomorrow's embarrassing admissions which prove that there's still a little place where you're drawing a line. Reid, Ferraro and Clinton won't be the last to make these racial blunders.
Though the road from slavery to the civil rights era took less than 100 years, I fear that the much shorter distance will still must go will take much longer.
A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.
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1.20.10 @ 9:47a
Good post, Jeff. I think your subtitle is right on, even when we have the best of intentions.
1.20.10 @ 9:53a
I do think that there's a distinct difference between a racial comment and a racist comment. To ignore racial tensions or racial distinctions or even the history of racism in America is not solving the problem. Refusing to point out that our President is black, or that it's been both a hinderance and a boon to him is naive.
The three quotes you used from those politicians, while clumsy, were not, in and of themselves, factually incorrect. Truth be told, a bunch of white people probably did vote for Obama because he wasn't "scary." And maybe a woman wouldn't have won. I remember when the most repeated compliment paid to Colin Powel was that he was "well-spoken." This is not a description I've ever heard regarding a white politician.
And I'm not saying it's right. Hopefully, there will be a time when people aren't impressed by a black man speaking well. When people are judged based on merit, or, if we're being judgemental, socio-economic status. But to ignore that differences in race do, in fact, inform a lot of people's decisions and opinions is to deny both the strides African-Americans have made over the last century, as well as the distance they still need to travel before the question of race becomes a moot point.
1.20.10 @ 11:09a
I don't disagree entirely, Adam. Ignoring race difference is not only sort of denying that there is tension, but also, ignoring race basically only works if the races cease to identify themselves as different. I can think of a lot of reasons this won't work.
Still, one can't deny that the ongoing division of the races does keep us... well, divided. I struggle with that dilemma; how can the races actually come together given such division?
This goes farther than simply pointing out stuff Democrats said that is "iffy" racially (the focus of the piece), but for example, I am alarmed that when the US Census offers 15+ choices of race, it only adds lines in the sand between us all, and that such action only further complicates the issue. I'm not saying it's a government conspiracy to keep us divided or something, but at the same time, the reasoning seems suspect to me. Why does the government need to break us up in this fashion but for to sort us out and treat us differently accordingly? And once we are sorted and treated differently, how are we going to get back together?
1.20.10 @ 12:22p
Geraldine Ferraro was born in 1935. Harry Reid was born in 1939. Bill Clinton was born in 1946. Not one of them is younger than 63. They were all progressive for their time. They managed to denounce a lot of the old-school thought that was prevalent among their elders (and quite a few of their peers) in their younger days, and we're all better for it. It was their generation that fought to knock down so many institutional barriers of discrimination.
But that doesn't mean they didn't have some prejudices of their own that they may not have been aware of, and it doesn't keep them from appearing to be old-fashioned racist in our time. Those guys are from my mom's generation; President Obama is from my generation (he's not even five years older than me). And ironically, it is because of their efforts that we are now able to recognize their prejudices.
Our generation has improved on the previous one. But it may be that my daughter's generation, by contrast to my own, may reveal something of my prejudices in the next 30-40 years which I am not aware of now. In a way, I hope so, because it means we will have done something right.