Column for 23 March, 2008
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
Let me start out by admitting I made a mistake in my last column. In my eagerness for a clever turn of phrase, I stated that David Paterson of New York was the only sitting black governor. In fact, Deval Patrick has been Governor of Massachusetts since 2006. Mea culpa. In my last column, I also discussed how the battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Presidential Nomination was not about race so much as the complete inability of America to have a grown-up discussion about race. Since then, Barack Obama gave The Speech. Even by already-high Obamanian standards of public speaking, this was an excellent speech. It is a welcome change of pace to hear from a politician who does not speak in sound-bites, is not afraid to sound as intelligent as he is, and refuses to treat his audience as a pack of drooling morons. Obama, of course, condemned some of the inflammatory language used by his former preacher, Jeremiah Wright, in keeping with media standards that only conservative white evangelical preachers (Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, John Hagee, Rod Parsley) are allowed to criticize America in their sermons or suggest that 9-11 or Hurricane Katrina were God’s judgment on a fallen nation. Using this same standard, I eagerly await FOX News’ expose of the Prophet Isaiah as an anti-Semite for his condemnations of Israel. Strikingly, Obama not only declined to condemn Wright the person (as opposed to some of his words), but actively embraced him as a part of his life, a contrast to the frequent Clintonian inclination to toss friends and associates (Zoe Baird, Les Aspin, Lani Guinier, Joycelyn Elder) under the bus at the first sign of trouble. Obama was not afraid to confront unpleasant truths, such as the fact that America was, in fact, founded on contradictory pillars of democracy and racism, from the Declaration of Independence’s reference to “merciless Indian savages,” to the Constitution’s relegation of African-Americans to 3/5ths of a human being each. Tellingly, however, Obama also acknowledged the fears of many white Americans, fears of busing and fears of affirmative action. Whether these fears are rational or not, they are nevertheless very real and no honest conversation on race relations can take place without both sides admitting that they are, in some way, afraid of each other. Whether The Speech will have a positive effect on Obama’s campaign is hard to say. He seems to have gained an uptick in the polls, but the whole episode with Rev. Wright has created a perfect tool for the Right Wing Howler Monkey Media Chorus (RWHMMC) to inject racial prejudice into the campaign without being too blatant about it. Okay, they say, if you don’t believe us that Obama is a communist, atheist, secret Muslim Manchurian Candidate, look at his scary black preacher! Look how he’s yelling! Isn’t that scary? And for those of us from the Baptist tradition, where everyone is supposed to sit very still and not wave your arms or clap lest you be thought a Pentecostal, the sight of people who actually seem to express human emotion in church may well be off-putting, particularly in a predominantly black congregation. Sadly, while many blacks know what services are like in a white church, few whites ever visit black churches, as Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the American week. Frankly, though, nothing Barack Obama said would have satiated the RWHMMC; they see in him a real threat, and so we are treated to the spectacle of Bill O’Reilly, a sexual stalker who nonetheless feels qualified to denounce Elliot Spitzer, and a credulous racist blowhard who once expressed astonishment that patrons at a restaurant in Harlem had good table manners, denouncing Obama and Wright for “phony charges of racism.” Because, you see, in the world of many whites, “racism” is just something icky that happened a long time ago. Certainly no one today is a racist. No one white anyway. In this strange parallel dimension, accusing someone of racism is a far worse crime than racism itself. Don Imus and that idiot from “Seinfeld” certainly can’t be racists; after all, they are nice people who do good things. A racist is somebody like, well, like Hitler or those inbred mouth-breathers who murdered James Byrd, Jr. Anything less than that is just “race baiters” trying to impose “political correctness” on everybody. Of course, the handful of actual instances of “political correctness” (such as asinine efforts to ban certain words on college campuses) are far outweighed by the legions of loud-mouthed jerks who feel they can now spout whatever racist, gay-bashing, misogynistic tripe that happens to spring into their empty heads just by preceding it with, “now this might not be ‘politically correct,’ but….” With those simple words, idiots are somehow magically transformed into courageous martyrs to the First Amendment. This is not to say that professional race baiters, both black and white, do not exist. They do. Al Sharpton, a con-man, pathological liar and cynical opportunist, is merely the other side of the coin from David Duke. Both make their fame and fortune from exploiting racial tension and, as a result, both are used as scapegoats to smother any realistic dialogue. Whites can point to Al Sharpton as the reason why black claims of racism cannot be trusted and blacks can refer to David Duke as an example of the Nazi tendencies that all whites allegedly harbor. But in order to come to grips with the issue of race in modern America, we have to ignore nitwits like those and concentrate on reality. For example, whites frequently tell me they are afraid to talk about race or even talk to nonwhites for fear of being “branded” a racist. These kinds of fears are mostly unfounded (and a good example of the “cult of victimization” I mentioned last week); common courtesy is usually enough to avoid giving offense. Stop talking to people of color like you are a 13 year old boy asking a girl to the school dance and you should be okay. A friend of mine, an African American who is a veteran, a college professor, a published author and a PhD, recently went to enroll his young son at a prestigious pre-school. The teacher was showing him around and extolling the virtues of their program, including a music class. We have country music, he was told by this obviously well-meaning but clueless person, and classical music, but I don’t think we’ve ever done hip-hop. Sigh. Maybe I should take my kids there to see if she’ll offer pow-wow dancing. The struggle continues.