Thursday, March 27, 2008
“Prejudice and discrimination have a certain ghostly momentum that continues for years after their demise.”
Barack Obama, more than anyone this election, has raised the issue of race and kept it in the headlines. At first, it was a reasonable strategy akin to the way John Kennedy handled the potential of his becoming the first Catholic President in 1960. The candidate tells everyone that it shouldn’t be an issue, the implication being that it is. Many non-Catholics then, or white voters now will feel compelled to deny the implicit charge of prejudice and will support your candidacy to prove their point. At the same time, Catholic and Black voters will be galvanized into voting for one of their own. It worked for Kennedy, and has worked for Senator Obama – up to a point. The Pastor Wright controversy and Senator Obama’s speech on the subject of race are on the verge of casting the Senator as a Black candidate, rather than simply a candidate who happens to be Black. The latter works for his candidacy, the former might not. We’ll see. (See “Channeling JFK,” posted March 14th here on WordFeeder.)
The explicit message of the Senator’s comments on the subject has been to describe Black and white Americans as racially sensitive. The typical white person, he tells us, is still apprehensive, if not outright fearful in his or her contacts with Black Americans who still feel resentment for inequities against which they have long struggled. Senator Obama pretends to be enlightening the American voter by bringing all this to our attention. Others no doubt think he’s stirring the pot. My feeling is that he’s a throwback to another era, not all that many years ago, but another time nonetheless, and that bothers me.
He can’t be forward looking, and backward thinking at the same time. He can’t bring us together, if he doesn’t appreciate how much progress we have made on our own toward precisely that objective. I don’t particularly like the way he claims to speak for all Black people, and to understand the race-related anxieties of whites. He may be bi-racial personally, experienced and well read, but that doesn’t make his interpretations of Black and white behavior universally or even generally correct.
Some time ago I worked with a gentleman, a quality individual in all respects, but somewhat odd in appearance and behavior, who is a member of a small, but prominent ethnic group. He had one of those last names that could easily be mispronounced by people who didn’t know him. To make matters worse, the common mispronunciation was a real word with unattractive implications. I won’t give you his actual name which would be unkind, but will defer, by way of example, to a commercial which ran some months ago.
The ad featured a young man toward the end of an important interview which appeared to be going very well, when he rises to his feet, extends his hand to the interviewer and says, “Thank you, Mr. Dum-ass,” to which the interviewer, his displeasure obvious, responds by saying, “It’s ‘Doo-mahsss.’” Needless to say, the real individual I’m talking about was the subject of considerable kidding, and suffered a daily struggle to feel good about himself. As I remember, he often complained about how he was treated under various circumstances, attributing his lack of personal and professional success to his ethnicity. In fact, as one colleague eventually told him, ethnicity had nothing to do with it.
Prejudice and discrimination have a certain ghostly momentum that continues for years after their demise.
For those who have been on the receiving end, they, like the rest of us, are prone to make assumptions which attribute the adverse aspects of their experience to factors other than their own behavior and capabilities. Unfortunately, excuses, race-related or other, tend to distract from root causes, and delay the progress a clearer vision might accomplish.
For all of those who have reacted in a way conditioned by the habits of prejudice and discrimination against others, there are doubtlessly remnant feelings that persist without reason. They can be hurtful, and die a slow death I’m not sure any politician can hasten.
Is all this worth talking about on the evening news? I don’t know, except that exposure in the media tends to exaggerate the prevalence of any problem. Blowing things out of proportion is an unavoidable byproduct and favorite pastime in the world of “Breaking News” and 24 hour coverage.
I wonder how much of what Senator Obama and his spiritual advisor, Pastor Wright, cite of the Black experience is still valid, or the vestigial mindset of another generation’s reality? It’s a reasonable, although difficult question for someone to ask another of a different color, but Senator Obama raised the issue in public, and that gives all of us the right. Senator Obama, how much of the reaction of typical whites to Black Americans which you describe is real, how much of it imagined, and how much of it the confused, outdated and inherently prejudicial teachings of 20 years of Sundays in the wrong place?
How much of the problems which still plague Black America are attributable to race, or to color-independent economic and other factors to which your attention and our country’s resources might be better directed?