Racing To The Future

With Barack Obama’s speech recently on his former pastor (the bigoted, race-baiting, paranoid Jeremiah Wright) that he used to bring up the issue of race in America. A lot of people (me included) took the opportunity to note how he really didn’t do very much to address his long-term relationship with Wright, but he did have some very important things to say about the state of race relations in America.

This is what I consider the most important part of Obama’s speech:

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

I’m going to take up the good Senator and put forth my opinions on this “national dialogue on race.” As I happen to have a race (Caucasian — European mutt, with English, French, and Scandanavian ancestry, in other words “typical white person”), I think I have something to contribute.

And my contribution is this: I want a dialogue. And I want all that that entails — meaning, two (or more) people talking and listening.

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The first thing I want to say is what I do not want to talk about. And that is the past.

America is a great nation. It has been from the beginning. And there is a price for that greatness — both our triumphs and our failings tend to be on a grand scale, and our proudest feats tend to get blurred into history while our most shameful take on a historic prominence.

Our history on racial matters is spotty at best. We kept slavery as a legal institution than most of our peers. And the full repudiation of that shameful legacy took about a century — and a lot of good people’s lives. People of all races and sexes and national origins, it must be noted.

But I say this with an absolute firm conviction and sincerest, most heart-felt belief: in the last 40 years or so, the most destructive policies and actions and systems against black Americans — and race relations in general — have almost all come in the guise of “helping” blacks and “making amends” for the injustices.

Welfare, affirmative action, set-asides, quotas, preferences — all these have, at their core, the message that “you can’t succeed on your own, so we’ll help you.” Sometimes it’s blatantly saying “you are inferior, and need help;” mostly it’s “the system/society/nation is against you, so we’ll balance that out.” And that “soft bigotry of low expectations” has inculcated a culture where it has become natural to look to — and depend upon — the government to take care of things.

And that works just fine for the people pushing that message, because they believe in big government. It takes a big government, and all that entails, to ram these beliefs down the throats of the American people. It needs power, it needs money, and it needs a steady stream of people who have grown comfortable on what the government gives them and will keep re-electing (when they can be troubled to vote) those who promise them everything.

But as I said, that is the past. I don’t want to talk about that. The only reason I even say it is because I believe most fervently in the South African model.

When South Africa’s despicable apartheid government fell, there was a tremendous fear of a backlash against the minority whites who had held power. After all, we’d seen it many times before in Africa, and several times since. (I certainly thought it was pretty much inevitable.) But they found a way to get past it.

Their “Truth And Reconciliation Commission” system was a stroke of genius — Gerald Ford’s pardoning of Richard Nixon would be the closest we’ve ever come to in this nation, and even that is nowhere near as bold. People who had committed atrocities under the apartheid system could win full amnesty if — and only if — they appeared before the commission and made a full confession. This allowed a lot of inconvenient and ugly truths to come out, in a way that was most likely to get full stories — and avoid the bloodbaths that, prior, had seemed inevitable in such circumstances.

I don’t believe we need a similar body — very few of those people who set up and carried out the most heinous racist deeds and policies are still in any position of power, and the vast majority of them are dead. (Relax, Senator Byrd. You’re safe.) But I think we need a “national amnesty” where we, as a nation, acknowledge that over the centuries, we have done horribly destructive things to our countrymen and countrywomen — with both the best and worst intentions — and we need to fix things.

That is the crux of the matter: not what has come before, but where things stand today and where we wish to take them in the future.

I think it is long past time that we actually start to bring about Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision — one that a lot of us share. On August 23, 1963, he declared that “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Let’s take a look at those four little children he referred to:

Yolanda Denise King was seven at the time. She died last year, at the age of 51.

Martin Luther King III was five at the time. He’s now 50.

Dexter Scott King was two. He is 47 today.

Bernice Albertine King was not even four months old that day. She’ll be 45 in a week or so.

One of Dr. King’s children did not live to see his wish come true. In all honesty, I doubt that any of them will survive to see it. (Then again, they might. Their mother lived into her 70s, and Dr. King’s parents lived to 69 and 84.)

But they very well might see us take some serious steps towards that goal, when we can push as a society to bring that to fruition.

But we shouldn’t do it because we owe it to Dr. King and his memory. We owe him a great deal, but we should not be doing such major things simply because we wish to honor him.

We should do it because we owe it to ourselves. The legacy of racial divisiveness — whether it’s the centuries of bigotry or the decades of paternalistic condescension and misguided “help” — is a corrosive on our national soul, and we owe it to all Americans — past, present, and future — to correct this and move towards a truly just and unbigoted society.

I don’t think we can ever fully achieve it; I think it’s innate in human nature, and stronger in some than in others. But we can beat the hell out of it, make it as unacceptable to publicly air (and privately practice) like we did drunk driving.

After all, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Thank you, Senator Obama, for your contribution to the national discussion on race. I still won’t vote for you, based on your other policies (economic, social, and foreign, just to name three), but you did our nation a great service when you were challenged on your long-standing support and alliance with Reverend Wright. I just wish you would realize that he’s even more of an obstacle to progress than a dozen Mel Gibsons or Michael Richards or Don Imuses.

Spring Break starts with a bang
Out with the trash