44 years ago, today, then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson (D) signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. The single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever crafted, it finally gave teeth to the 15th Amendment.
I never bought the rhetoric of “post-racial America” that was promoted by some in the Obama campaign last year and more by the mainstream media. (Obama himself said several times that no one election could solve all our racial problems. He acknowledged progress–that’s all.) The increase in hate crimes since the election is major evidence that racism is alive and well in the U.S.A. But I want to focus on 3 items for reflection: 1)The racebaiting (and phony calls of “reverse racism” ) in the opposition to the SCOTUS nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor; 2) The arrest and aftermath of Harvard historian Henry Louis “Skip” Gates; and 3) The “birthers,” those who claim that Barack Obama is not legally president because, allegedly, he is actually a citizen of Kenya and “has never shown an authentic U.S. birth certificate.” All these show racism in America in fascinating ways that need to be addressed–not least by our churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions, but also by public leaders of various kinds, and by ordinary people like you and me. (Thus, this blog post.)
!. Judge Sonia Sotomayor, soon to be Justice Sotomayor, was far from my first choice for an Obama Supreme Court nominee. As a perusal of her nearly 20 years on the federal bench shows (and one can follow this at SCOTUSblog), she is a centrist jurist much like David Souter whom she is replacing–and a few issues maybe even more conservative than Souter. I thought Obama should have nominated a liberal powerhouse to take on Scalia and Alito. This is a woman centrist enough that she was first appointed to the State Supreme Court of New York by then-Pres. George H. W. Bush (Bush I) and when Pres. Bill Clinton raised her to the Second Court of Appeals, she was easily confirmed by a Republican controlled U.S. Senate. Were there legitimate issues to raise about her appointment by conservatives? Sure. That would be true of any nominee. But here was a woman with a long judicial record–and it was almost ignored in her Senate Judiciary confirmation hearings. Instead, they focused on a few lines from a few speeches she had given over the years and tried to make her out to be a “reverse racist” who hates white men.
Judge Sotomayor was probably unwise to ever make the remark that a “wise Latina could judge some cases better than a white man,” but placing that remark in its context it is not hard to see what she meant. We all come things, including the law, from our experiences and perspectives–and the experiences and perspectives of a working class Latina woman from the Bronx are not the same as the usual rich whites who dominate our courts. The GOP HAILED this perspectivalism when during the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas–who came from utter poverty. They championed the “empathy” of Thomas, Alito, and Roberts. Is empathy good in men but a sign of illogic and emotivism in women? (I do think sexism is also a factor in this case, but I want to examine it only in the context of race because of the focus of this blog post.) Or is diversity only valued when it leads one to come to the exact same positions as held by conservative white men as with Clarence Thomas?
The attacks on Judge Sotomayor reveal that whites believe their perspectives should dominate. When they read the law, they are interpreting objectively–whether their judgments affect non-whites or not. That a Latina should presume to interpret the law in ways that will affect whites fills them with fear. This is expressed in the false debate about “objectivity” vs. “activist judges.” There is no “objectivity” in interpreting the Constitution or any other document–no “God’s eye view” (except for God!) or “view from nowhere.” All interpretation, whether of the Bible or a Shakespearean play or a postmodern novel or the U.S. Constitution is perspectival, shaped by our experiences and history–including our sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious commitments or lack thereof, etc. We bring all that TO any text we read. This is well known in hermeneutics, the science of interpretation, and can easily be demonstrated in any book discussion group. This doesn’t mean that the Constitution or any other text can mean whatever we wish. Good interpreters will be informed by the history behind the text, by the history of interpretation (in this case, by legal precedent), and the actual words of the text. In 90% of cases, “liberal,” “centrist,” and “conservative” legal scholars come to very similar, if not identical, conclusions. The remaining time, though, requires skills in interpretation, the practices of a reading community (in this case, Constitutional scholars)–and one’s awareness of how different readings have practical import in human life. So, one should value diversity on the bench–one should want a Supreme Court that more closely resembles the racial, gender, and linguistic diversity of the nation itself. But the opposition to Judge Sotomayor showed a fear of such diversity on the part of those (rich whites) who have long benefitted from having their perspectives dominate the law. That the attacks were led in the Judiciary Committee by Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) who, in 1986, was rejected by a Republican-controlled judiciary committee from an appointment as a U.S. Attorney because of repeated instances of documented racist behavior (from referring to the NAACP as “communist inspired,” to trying to block African-Americans in AL from voting, calling a white lawyer a “race traitor” because he defended civil rights workers, etc.) is more than ironic. For Jeff Sessions to tell ANYONE that she “displays prejudices” is so far over the top that it isn’t funny.
One unspoken fear seems to go like this: “If I were treated as badly as women and persons of color have been treated by white males in this country, I would be full of resentment and likely to use any power I got for revenge. Therefore, surely that is how Sonia Sotomayor feels and she is just WAITING to hurt white males when she is on the Supreme Court bench.” Spelled out, most people would think this is ridiculous–but as an unspoken, barely thought, fear, I think it is real for far too many. That’s why so little time was spent on Judge Sotomayor’s record and so much on a few lines taken out of context of a few speeches. And sure, minority resentment exists and is sometimes acted on. But there is no evidence of that in Judge Sotomayor. White guilt turns to fear and is projected onto others–and reinforces white fears.
More, I think these attacks on Sotomayor were deliberate. The Republicans can read polls. They know they lost the last two election cycles largely because of the growing Hispanic vote and that they were further alienating Hispanics. For some reason, it seemed worth it to them because they apparently WANT to inflame feelings of alienation and resentment in whites, especially working class whites who think “their America” is being taken from them. Case in point, the claim made that Judge Sotmayor belonged to a “white KKK without the hoods” in belonging to La Raza. La Raza is simply the largest Hispanic civil rights organization, far from radical. Nor is “la raza” simply Spanish for “the race” as too many whites claimed. It means “the people” and doesn’t have the same negative connotations as the English word “race,” just as the English word “folk,” doesn’t have the negative Nazi-like connotations of the German “volk.” This is a case of projecting onto others the feelings one has one’s self. And it is designed to make Judge Sotomayor the “other” who is “not like us” and therefore should not be permitted on the nation’s highest court. Our history shows that times of economic duress bring out fear and hatred of the other most.
2)The “Skip” Gates arrest. As everyone who follows the news now knows, Harvard Professor Henry L. Gates, an African-American, returned home from a trip to find the door to his Cambridge, MA home jammed. He was forced to “break-in” to his own house. Soon, a white police officer named Crowley arrived because of reports of a burglary. Gates identified himself and said it was his home. His luggage was clearly in the hall. Perhaps frustrated, he was not polite to the officer, was quite rude by all accounts, in fact, but did show his identification, gave his position at Harvard and said that the cop could call Harvard which runs the house for tenured professors (it has several). Instead, the cop arrested him for “disorderly conduct” because Gates refused to come out of the house with him and was “abusive in language.” I don’t know what would frighten me more: that this was blatantly racist or that the police now had a policy of arresting all homeowners who aren’t polite to them!
In my mind there is no doubt that a white Harvard professor in the same situation, even doing the same things as Gates, would not have been arrested. This was not night, but the middle of the day. Gates’ luggage was visible and the officer’s own report shows that he was satisfied as to his identity and no longer believed a burglary was taking place. But every African-American I have ever known, especially every black male, knows what Gates went through. They know what it is to be followed in stores to make sure they aren’t stealing merchandise. They know what it is to be pulled over for “driving while black.” They know that if they live in the “wrong neighborhoods,” their neighbors are likely to report them for burglary. They know to distrust the police because a primary function of police in American history has been to keep African-Americans (and labor activists, women, immigrants, other minorities, but especially African-Americans) “in their place.” They know that far too many police departments have arrest reports partially filled out already: Hair “black,” Eyes, “brown.” (I saw this in D.C. in ’89 when arrested for civil disobedience. The officers typing reports were angry at having to get so many blank forms where this hadn’t been done. It became clear whom the jails were MEANT to house.) They know that if they show any rudeness to police they are likely to be shot and killed and the report will be “resisting arrest.”
Now, none of this may have been in Officer Crowley’s mind. I don’t accuse him of personal animosity. I don’t want to count his black friends (or Latino friends, Asian friends, etc.). The system teaches him to be more wary of black males and that certain neighborhoods are “supposed” to be occupied by rich whites. (Never mind that Gates is probably the most recognizable American historian in the country, who has hosted several TV specials. A working class white cop probably didn’t tune into PBS to see “African-American Lives” I or II.) And doubtless class differences between a Harvard professor and a blue-collar cop played into the incident. (I come from the working class–although my parents both went on to earn university degrees AFTER I began my own university work–and despite my several degrees now once more work in a blue collar setting. I understand those tensions in my bones.) But there is still no doubt in my mind that a white person in Gates’ position, doing the exact same things, would not have been arrested.
This needs to lead to more rounds of “sensitivity training” in police forces. Something also needs to be done to push whites in affluent neighborhoods to actually get to know persons of color who move in–so that they quit reporting them as burglars! (I once came into an academic reception at a big hotel with fellow Baptist theologian Miguel de la Torre, a light-skinned Cuban-American. Before we got to the reception area 3 white guests of the hotel assumed “naturally” that Miguel worked there and asked him to run personal errands for them. This was in 1997.) And we who are white have the majority burden of trying to keep these incidents from happening.
Yes, working on interracial understanding is something white folks have to assume the lion’s share of responsibility? Why? Our history. It doesn’t matter if none of your ancestors owned slaves or none of them ever pushed Jim Crow laws. It doesn’t matter if you grew up with good friends from different racial/ethnic groups. The burden is still on you (me) as a white person–because we have benefitted and still benefit from the history of racial discrimination. I would say the same to German Gentiles in any work on relations with Jews–Because of your history, YOU have the larger share of responsibility for working on a brighter future. We are not born into the world with a clean slate–we are the product, good and bad, of what has happened before we got here. Jeremiah 32 tells us that the sins of our ancestors still affect their children for generations.
3) The “Obama birth certificate” conspiracy. O.K., first the facts. See Factcheck.org’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Barack Obama was born in 1961 in Hawai’i. His mother never went to Kenya. He himself never went to Kenya until he was 12 for a brief visit. The hospital duly gave a legitimate birth certificate to the State of Hawai’i as Linda Lingle, the REPUBLICAN governor of Hawai’i testifies. The local paper ran a birth announcement at the time–no time traveler went back to doctor the paper’s account so that a Constitutionally unqualified Barack Obama could later “illegitimately” occupy the White House. His birth certificate was shown as he registered to run for president–just as every other candidate has to–and the Supreme Court has now rejected several lawsuits about this as having no basis.
Look, the Constitution requires that any candidate for president be “natural born” citizens, rather than later naturalized. (The Constitution provided a loophole for George Washington and other early presidents who would have begun life as British citizens.) But Obama would have been a “natural born” citizen even if had been born in Kenya, because his mother was a U.S. citizen who never renounced her citizenship. Similarly, John McCain is a natural born citizen, although he was born in PANAMA, because his parents were citizens when he was born. By contrast, neither Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan nor Republican governor Arnold Schwarzeneggar of California is qualified to be president because they are naturalized citizens–Granholm was originally a Canadian and AH-Nold was originally Austrian. The presidency is the only office forbidden to naturalized citizens–but Obama IS a natural-born citizen.
But the facts aren’t the point for the birthers. Conspiracy theorists are seldom convinced by the facts. It is about legitimacy and it has everything to do with race. A new study shows that the majority of “birthers” are Southerners and the heart of the conspiracy theory is in Alabama, cradle of the Confederacy. Coincidence? Not on your life. Since Obama won by just under 9 million votes, those who feel that “their America and everything it stands for” are threatend by him must find a way to claim that his presidency is illegitimate–and they can’t blame a brother as governor of a key state or the Supreme Court as aggrieved Democrats could (with more reason) in 2000. The birth certificate conspiracy is a straw to claim that “this black man has no right to be in OUR White House.” It goes along with the claims that he is a “secret Muslim” (from those who believe that this is a Christian country instead of a pluralistic country of religious liberty where Christians are a majority) and a “terrorist,” etc. All of it is a way to say, “He’s not one of us!” and it is not hard to figure out who the “us” is supposed to be.
I, who grew up in the South and still live on the border between the South and the Midwest, am NOT claiming that all Southerners are racist. Let it be said clearly: When I entered basic training, it was the lilly white boys from Midwestern places like Iowa, Wyoming, Idaho and the like who were scared to sleep in their bunks in the same rooms with African-Americans, not us Southern boys who looked at them like they were crazy. Virginia, once capital of the Confederacy, elected the first black governor in America since Reconstruction in Douglas Wilder, who is now Mayor of Richmond. Louisiana has elected Bobby Jindal whose parents came from India and who is dark-skinned enough to have been called the “n” word if he lived during segregation (and probably now by some). In the 2010 election cycle two African-Americans are making credible runs for governor of Southern states: Rep. Artur Davis (D) in AL and Atty. Gen. Thurbert E. Baker (D) in Georgia. Rep. Kendrick Meeks (D) is making a more difficult run for U.S. Senator in FL against popular governor Charlie Crist (R). Southern whites have often been stronger champions of racial justice than those from elsewhere in the country where the problem is not so “in your face.”
Nevertheless, the history of Southern racism cannot be denied and it is hardly a surprise that the birthers’ strength is there. Nor is it a coincidence that the vast majority of birthers are Republican. Part of this is not racial: Republicans lost and few voted for Obama. A majority of Democrats and Independents did. So, those who voted for him are hardly going to want to entertain a conspiracy theory that he is not legitimately president. (The leftwing conspiracy theory, equally stupid, that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney plotted 9/11 and were in league with Osama bin Laden likewise had most of its fringe supporters among Democrats. Most Democrats did not believe this wild view, but it is OBVIOUS why even fewer Republicans would believe it–if it was going to have any popularity, it would be on the left. )
But I do think there is somewhat of a racial dimension to Republican support for the birthers. Far more elected Republicans support the birther conspiracy theory than EVER elected Democrats did the “Bush/Cheney planned 9/11” theory. Why? Neither has any support in fact. (Bush and Cheney were OPPORTUNISTS who took advantage of 9/11 for their own agenda. They did much that was evil. But they did not plot attacks on their homeland–and I am convinced that they are sincere in believing that much of their evil was designed to protect this nation–which doesn’t make it less evil.) The answer has to lie in the “Southern strategy” first designed by Richard Nixon–whereby Republicans found a path back to the White House (and eventually to control of all the federal government for several years) by deliberately wooing racist Southern whites fleeing a Democratic Party that was cleaning house of Dixiecrats and firmly planting itself on the side of civil rights in the mid-’60s. (This was the end of the FDR coalition of liberal northern whites and southern white populists–with a racist dimension to their populism. That Democratic Party was gone for good by 1965.) Many who became leaders of the Republican Party had been Dixiecrats who were famous for their racism and ties to white supremacy groups, including Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Jesse Helms (R-NC), Haley Barbour (R-MS), Trent Lott (R-MS), and Jeff Sessions (R-AL). The strength of the Republican Party, such as it still is, is now in the South (plus OK, WY, ID, and AK)–the elected Republican birthers are either playing to their constituents (race-baiting) or believe the conspiracy theory along with them (delusions based on personal racial prejudices and fears).
The question isn’t about birth certificates, but about legitimacy. You could put EVERY birther in a time machine and allow them to watch Ann Dunham Obama give birth in a Honolulu hospital and they STILL wouldn’t believe he was a natural born citizen. Because their view is “he’s not one of us and isn’t entitled to that office.” They never had those views about John McCain, so no one ordered him to produce his birth certificate from Panama! The birthers have a pre-set view about what an American president should look like and it isn’t like Barack Obama. (To be sure, they probably wouldn’t have thought the president should look like Hillary Rodham Clinton, either, but their acceptance of Sarah Palin shows that, although sexism is still very real, certain parts of our country are more accepting of white women in places of power than of persons of color. I live in one of those places. KY elected its first woman governor in the mid-8os. It still only has ONE African-American state senator. KY is a “purple” state that is not firmly in one or other major political party. It voted twice in overwhelming numbers for Bill Clinton and then voted twice in overwhelming numbers for George W. Bush. McCain won here in a landslide, but I think Hillary Clinton would have had a better chance here. Sexism is real in KY–but racism is MUCH stronger here in a state that only has 8% African Americans and most concentrated in 2 counties.)
So, there we have it. Three different phenomena–but all intersecting the history and current reality of racism in America. We’ve come a long way–but we have a long way to go. Pretending that we live in a “post-racial society” doesn’t get us anywhere. The only way to go forward is to talk about these matters openly and to confront them–in ourselves, our families, our friends, places of worship, etc. We have to get beyond our comfort zones and deal with the racist realities in our midst if they are ever to reside only in our past.
The Texas board that determines textbook content (always trying to remove any mention of evolution) is now deciding that children may not learn about Cesar Chavez (inappropriate role model) or Thurgood Marshall (inappropriate historical figure)! If you live in the U.S. but outside the Lone Star State, still be alarmed. Because, for reasons that escape me, public school textbook publishers often use the Texas market to determine content for what they publish for the REST of the nation, too! So, they could be dumbing down ALL our children. Time to make a stink about this. Our children would not learn about the first African-American on the Supreme Court (who also argued the winning case in the Brown v. Board of Education case that desegregated the schools)–somehow he’s “historically inappropriate.” And they would be deprived of learning about Cesar Chavez, leader (along with the still struggling Dolores Huerta) of the United Farmworkers union and an apostle of nonviolent protest–an “inappropriate role model.” Do I detect a bias among Texans deciding on textbook context that favors oppressors–or are they just racist bigots?!
They are trying to disappear down the memory hole the heroes of the ’60s who changed this country for the better. As George Orwell knew, he who controls the past, controls the future. In an era of a rightwing court dominated by the semi-fascists Scalia, Alito, Thomas, and Roberts, remembering Thurgood Marshall is a dangerous, subversive memory. In an age of agribusiness and of workers deprived of ever more of their rights and of increasing white fears of Mexican-Americans, remembering Cesar Chavez–who was a key figure in turning Bobby Kennedy from a Cold Warrior to a candidate for president who campaigned for the poor and for peace–is a dangerous, subversive act. We don’t want to, I don’t know, INSPIRE new generations, now do we?
Right wing attacks on Judge Sotomayor as “reverse racist” have not only been ridiculous, but exposed their own racism in BOLD letters. There was convicted Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy using his radio show to call Judge Sotomayor a racist for belonging to the National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino/a civil rights organization in the nation. He incorrectly said that La Raza means “the race.” Not really. It means “people,” without any of the negative overtones of the English word “race,” just as the English term “folk” doesn’t have the negative connotations of the German word “volk.” But in the process of making this slur, Liddy not only mistranslated, but referred to the Spanish language as illegal alien. Liddy also worried about Sotomayor’s menstrual cycle on the bench! (That should unite women everywhere on her side!)
Then there was former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), whose presidential campaign last year brought anti-immigration xenophobia to new lows, who referred to La Raza as “Hispanic KKK without the hoods!” Pat Buchanan, who helped Richard Nixon design the race-baiting “Southern Strategy” for winning the presidency by courting racist whites fleeing the Democratic Party after it embrace human rights, uses the most offensive terms to refer to Judge Sotomayor. Others incorrectly referred to her as a single mother (because all Puerto Ricans are, right?). Newt Gingrich called her “racist Latina woman” on Twitter—but now tries to take that back. (Newt Gingrich repeatedly played the race card as Speaker of the House.)
But now the rightwing rag, The National Review, takes the cake. The cover story is of Judge Sotomayor and makes fun of her remark (repeatedly taken out of context) about “a wise Latina.” But why does the cover paint Judge Sotomayor as an Asian Buddhist? Do all non-whites look alike to the editors of the National Review?
P.S. The charges that Judge Sotomayor is a racist are completely undermined by an examination of her record. SCOTUSblog examined every case of racial discrimination that came before Judge Sotomayor and found that she denied discrimination 80% of the time.
The 24/7 Dick Cheney interview tour keeps defending torture–and keeps giving evidence that could be used in future trials against him and his regime. The blogs are abuzz because he said Sunday that Bush authorized the torture programs. When will he be confronted with these claims under oath in a court of law? Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who has enormous contacts deep in the intelligence community and has broken many a govt. conspiracy over the years, has claimed that high-ranking intelligence officials have told him of a Bush-era “assassination squad” that ran directly out of Cheney’s office. I wish he could get them to go on the record, publicly. Could others in Congress or the Dept. of Justice know of these squads? Do they fear that they still exist and still report to Cheney? Is this why Obama and Congress are so reluctant to hold the Bush admin. accountable? Did even G.W. Bush keep going along with Cheney out of fear for his life? I don’t know. I do know we ordinary Americans have to keep pushing for real investigations and prosecutions by a special prosecutor.
But Cheney’s bold defense of his lawbreaking is not new. What was new Sunday was that he seemed to “come out” as a racist. We have long known of the deepseated ill will between Dick Cheney and former Sec. of State Colin Powell, dating back to before Powell was Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Personal animosity between two people of different races is no proof of racial prejudice. I don’t like RNC Chair Michael Steele (though he’s entertaining), but it has nothing to do with his race. If he knew me, I assume he’d dislike me, too, but I wouldn’t attribute it to any anti-white feelings on his part. Sometimes folks just clash. So, Cheney’s Sunday claim that the GOP should stick with Rush Limbaugh as its voice and reject that of Powell need not, on its face, be racist.
But. . . .
Limbaugh has claimed repeatedly that Powell, perhaps one of the most widely respected Republicans beyond GOP circles, had no other reason for his endorsement of Barack Obama for Pres. last Fall than race. He repeated that recently and Powell told Republicans that Rush is a poison to their party. So, in endorsing Rush over Powell–and questioning whether Powell was still a Republican–was Cheney also claiming that Powell had been motivated strictly by race in his late Fall endorsement of Obama? (Remember, grassroots Republicans tried to draft Powell as a presidential candidate in 2000. Had they succeeded, they might have had a black presidential nominee BEFORE the Democrats. Among young Republicans and conservative independents I know, Powell is their favorite Republican.)
Still, agreeing with a radio loudmouth that a former 4 star general (one who served for years in Vietnam while both Cheney and Rush, huge supporters of that war in theory, sought and received numerous deferments), former Chair of the Joint Chiefs under both a Republican and Democratic administration, and former Secretary of State is a black racist doesn’t AUTOMATICALLY make Cheney himself racist–just a fool.
So, are their other indications that Cheney is racially prejudiced? Well, in 1986, Cheney, then a Rep. from Wyoming, voted AGAINST a Congressional resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa. Cheney, like Pres. Ronald Reagan, supported the deeply racist SA Pres. P.W. Botha and considered Mandela a terrorist. (In 1986, Botha ordered the bombing of the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches, but MANDELA was a terrorist?)
Cheney also voted against making Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday when he was a Republican Congressman (1979). He voted against Head Start which, though facially race neutral, helps out African-Americans and Latino children disproportionately because they are more likely to come from the impoverished backgrounds that need the extra help to be ready for Kindergarten. (It is significant that Rep. Linda Chavez (D-CA), the first Head Start grad to become a sitting member of Congress, is also sometimes mentioned as a possible Obama nominee to the Supreme Court. Would Cheney have apoplexy?)
Cheney has generally hated the press. He has given more interviews since leaving the Vice Presidency than in his entire career as a legislative aid, Deputy Chief of Staff for the Ford White House (during which time he tried to get the DoJ to perform the kinds of illegalities it eventually got caught doing under Ashcroft and Gonzalez–which always led me to think Cheney was behind it all), 5 term Republican Congressman from WY, Secretary of Defense for George H.W. Bush or VP under Bush II. So, there’s not a lot of verbal record to compare and say conclusively that Cheney is a racist. But neither is there anything in the record to refute the claim. The evidence is slim, but it all points one way.
We might add one more piece of evidence: Cheney’s endorsement of the “Shock and Awe” strategy in the Iraq war–his complete disregard for civilian life. (Bush I had to reign him in during Gulf War I and insist on the standards of international law.) Was this because Iraquis are generally darker skinned? Would Cheney have endorsed such tactics if the U.S. was at war with a white majority society like France? (Some would say that Cheney only cares about his own life.) This, too, is not conclusive.
But I think the evidence is definitely starting to pile up that Dick Cheney is a racist bigot.
Eric Holder, the first African-American U.S. Attorney General, has given an excellent speech on the problems of racism in the U.S. in 2009. Holder talks about the progress made in the U.S. since the end of legal segregation (’64, ’65), but also spells out how far we have to go. He notes that the media has been far too quick to view the election of Barack Obama to the presidency as proof that we now live in a “post-racial” society.
Noting that most workplaces are now integrated, Holder also points out that work is about the only place that whites and blacks (not to mention Asians, Latinos, etc.) associate regularly. We mostly don’t live in the same neighborhoods. We don’t hang out with each other after work. On weekends, we mostly associate only within our own racial groupings–both in terms of socializing and definitely in terms of where we worship. (11 a.m. Sunday is STILL the most segregated hour in America as very few churches make any real efforts to be multi-racial or multi-cultural–even if they are located in such areas.)
Holder also claims, rightly, that while most Americans no longer use openly racist language, we are “cowards” about talking about racial issues–especially with those of other racial/ethnic groups. Because such conversations are uncomfortable, and could offend, we avoid them–and thus avoid challenging ourselves to go beyond superficial friendliness or civility to actually breaking down barriers of misunderstanding.
The speech lacks the power of Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race and religion in America last year during the Democratic primaries. But this is still a bold speech that is provocative in a manner that may actually help us as a nation. I do think some critics have a point that Holder could have gone further and spelled out some of the issues that should be raised in these painful, uncomfortable dialogues–but this speech is a beginning, not an end.
Read Mr. Holder’s full remarks here. Then, take him up on the challenge: Invite colleagues from work who are of different racial/ethnic background home for dinner. If you have friends from different racial/ethnic backgrounds, try to find ways to begin such conversations. Challenge your church (and, if it is not multi-cultural, it should team up with one or more churches of different backgrounds) to provide “safe space” for such dialogues.
Honestly, folks: The military was integrated in 1948 and, sadly, it remains one of the most integrated institutions in the United States. I went to a mostly black junior high in Orlando in the ’70s (I was easy to spot in school group photos!) and to a pretty mixed (Caucasian, black, Asian, Latino) high school in Jacksonville Beach later in the same decade. I have taught at two historically black colleges (an experience both fun and VERY challenging) and I live in a mixed neighborhood and go to a somewhat multicultural congregation (it used to do better than currently). And I am constantly surprised at how far we HAVEN’T come in this country. We are having to fight the resegregation of the public schools (not helped at all by the “home schooling” movement).
How many white pastors or theologians regularly read African-American, Latino/a, or Asian American theologians or biblical scholars? (If you look at the footnotes and bibliographies of “minority” scholars, they are always fully abreast of the scholarship of the dominant Caucasian culture, but the reverse is not very often true.) Look at how little diversity there is in major news anchors (although local stations do better than the networks). If you are a well-read, college educated, white American and I came over your house, how many non-white authors (fiction, non-fiction) would I easily find on your bookshelves?
Is it any wonder we are so incredibly IGNORANT of each other–and, thus, regularly fear and misunderstand each other even when we have no desire to be personally prejudiced?
Our current Attorney General has laid down a significant challenge. Let’s take him up on it, shall we?
Most African-Americans elected to public office in the U.S. are either mayors of major cities or state legislators or U.S. representatives–and in both of the latter cases, they usually come from “majority-minority” districts. There have been a few exceptions: Several years back, Douglass Wilder(D-VA) became governor of Virginia, the first African-American governor since Reconstruction. Michael Steele (R-MD), who just became the first African-American chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC), was previously Lt. Governor of Maryland. Deval Patrick is Gov. of Massachussetts (D-MA) and David Paterson (D-NY) is governor of NY. Several years ago Carol Mosely-Braun (D-IL) served one term as Senator from IL and was later Clinton’s Ambassador to the UN and, briefly, a candidate for U.S. president in 2004.
I predicted, however, that IF Barack Obama actually managed to get elected to the U.S. presidency (and he did), that we would begin to see more African-Americans begin to run for statewide offices. Apparently, this is already happening. Rep. Kendrick Meeks (D-FL) has announced that he is running for the open U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL). Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL) has announced yesterday that he will run for Governor of Alabama(!) in 2010. Both are young men. Davis is 41 and a graduate of Harvard Law School where he knew Barack Obama. He has been a centrist in Congress even, for a Democrat, conservative–mindful that Alabama is not Vermont! Likewise, Meeks is a Clintonian centrist Democrat. Doubtless both will be portrayed by Republicans as flaming liberals, way out of touch with their respective states, but I don’t know whether they will be successful in doing so.
There are also rumors that legendary civil rights hero, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) is considering running for the U.S. Senate in 2010. When Gov. Deval Patrick (D-MA) is term limited, he may run for the U.S. Senate (this is surely Ted Kennedy’s last term) from MA and Mayor Corey Booker (D-NJ) of Newark is probably a future governor of New Jersey.
Missing from this list, so far, are any African-American women running for statewide offices, even though there are a significant number of African-American women in Congress and even though it was a woman, Carol Mosely-Braun, who became the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction. Hopefully, that will change.
We have talked before about how a “Bradley Effect” (more white voters telling pollsters they will vote for a black candidate than actually do) could hinder Obama from winning the White House even with his large polling leads. But there is evidence in the primaries that Obama won MANY white voters (even in traditionally racist areas of the country) and some studies showing that the Bradley effect may have disappeared or, at least, lessened. Nate Silver has excellent thoughts on this that are worth reading, and he cites an article by Lance Tarrance (the pollster that worked on L.A. mayor Tom Bradley’s campaign) that argues that the polling was flawed in that race and Bradley’s internal polling showed a much closer race. No matter whether one supports McCain or Obama, we all have an interest in eliminating racism. (Silver’s suggestion that one see if a “Bradley effect” exists for Republican black candidates, few as they are, is an excellent one for those interested who have the skills.) So, I urge you to read the article and, as you discuss the election with friends, urge them to vote for the best candidate–regardless of race. (If a woman was at the top of either ticket–people seldom vote for a ticket because of the VP candidate–I would be having similar posts about overcoming sexism in elections, too.)
UPDATE 10/08/08: I need to clear up a few misperceptions in comments. 1) Unless the race is really close come election day, I doubt racism will decide this election. I do think it would not even be this close if it wasn’t a factor. 2) The Bradley effect (voters who say they will vote for a black person, but then don’t) is different from those who openly admit they never will. But the latter do make one look for the possibility of the former. 3)With the economy in such bad shape, there may be a “reverse Bradley effect” in swing states like VA, NC, and IN–where people who swear to their friends that they will never vote for a (insert racial epithet here), reverse themselves in the privacy of the voting booth. In the latest poll by the Wall Street Journal (not exactly biased in a liberal or Democratic direction!), 59% of voters placed the economy as their number 1 issue and Obama was rated better than McCain on the economy by 15%!
Despite “Palin bump” for Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), I still think several factors favor an Obama-Biden victory in November: 1)As more becomes known about Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK), McCain’s VP choice, her popularity among women and independents is tanking. Sure, women were glad to see the first female VP candidate since Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-NY) in ’84–and all Americans were glad to see SOMETHING new with the GOP and this race. But a woman who has only 20 months in office and lists Alaska’s proximity to Russia as “foreign policy experience,” and then suggests war with Russia, is not reassuring for anyone but hardcore GOP neo-cons. And a woman who would outlaw abortions even in the case of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother strikes most people as extreme. Someone who made a D-minus in macroeconomics is not reassuring in this economic atmosphere–not even to NRA members who are thrilled that she can kill and field-dress a moose. Nor were many Americans reassured that she did not know what the “Bush doctrine” (Bush’s foreign policy guideline that the U.S. should not go to war only as a last resort, but preemptively any time we feel threatened or to spread democracy/capitalism or for whatever reason this week) was, apparently thinking it had something to do with W’s religious beliefs. And Palin’s ethical challenges make her look like just another Republican. So, the shiny is wearing off quickly–and she cannot carry McCain’s limping campaign across the finish line. (She does present a challenge to Joe Biden in the VP debate: He will have to keep focused on McCain, not her, to keep from looking like a bully.) 2) McCain is trying simultaneously to keep his base secure by embracing the Bush legacy and distance himself and run against his party. The result just makes him look either confused or a liar. 3) The economy is being blamed on the party in power. 4)Obama is either leading or statistically tieing in all the battleground states and McCain doesn’t have the resources to cover all his bases–especially in the Democratically-trending West. 5) Obama has the better ground game and this will make a difference in a close election in several states, I think.
However, it remains true that the history and current state of American racism still could defeat Obama. Polls show that as many as 1/3 of white Americans are worried about voting for a black man–still, in 2008. That’s the major reason why this political race remains close. Not the only reason, but the major one. To understand the racial dimension does not require subtle analysis of Fox News’ race-baiting code words, the “secret Muslim terrorist” lie, but simply asking some easy questions. (Many of these examples were sent to me by email from friends in the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.)
- What if John McCain were a former president of the Harvard Law Review while Barack Obama finished fifth from the bottom of his graduating class at Annapolis (the U.S. Naval Academy)?
- What if McCain had remained faithful and married to his first wife while Obama had left Michelle after she was no longer pretty due to a car accident and married a beautiful, wealthy, woman with political connections? (Actually, this double-standard on whose private life counts as “defending family values,” while breaking them and who is considered a threat to those values while embodying them is also a Republican-Democratic double standard and not just a racial double standard.)
- What if Michelle Obama had not only become addicted to painkillers, but illegally obtained them through her charitable organization as Cindy McCain has?
- What if Cindy McCain had graduated from Harvard Law School and quit corporate law to better help poor families?
- What if Obama had been a member of the “Keating Five” Savings and Loan scandal (which caused a previous economic meltdown and government bailout) as John McCain was? What if hundreds of lobbyists, including for enemy nations like Iran, staffed the Obama campaign the way they do McCain’s?
- What if John McCain were an eloquent speaker with fresh ideas?
If these questions reflected reality, do you really believe the election
numbers would be as close as they are?This is what racism does. It covers up, rationalizes and minimizes positive
qualities in one candidate and emphasizes negative qualities in another when
there is a color difference.
Whether U.S. racism is so strong as to decide this election in McCain’s favor remains unknown. We know there is a “Bradley effect,” named for Los Angeles’ mayor Tom Bradley (D) who, according to all the polls, should have been easily elected as the first black governor of California. (When they got in the polling booth, many whites who SAID they would vote for Bradley, didn’t.) But we don’t know if that effect is strong enough to decide this election. Since the days of Bradley, Doug Wilder (D-VA) became governor of Virginia, the first African-American governor of a Southern state since Reconstruction–and Deval Patrick (D-MA) was elected by a stronger margin as governor of MA. The Democratic primaries showed that many whites in states with little or no African-American populations are willing to vote for Obama–but in West Virginia and Kentucky (Democratic states with deep histories of racism) whites openly told British reporters that they would never vote for an African-American.
And the economy, as I have said repeatedly, both helps and hurts Obama simultaneously. It helps his chances because poor economies are blamed (usually rightly) on the party in power and because he has clear, commonsense ideas on how to help while McCain contradicts himself on the economy daily and looks confused, to say the least. But economic anxiety tends to make people “circle the wagons” and resist reaching out to those who are different. America’s worst periods of racial and ethnic strife and our worst anti-immigration eras were also eras of economic dislocation. We made our most significant gains in civil rights (as a result of major organized struggle) in an era of major economic expansion when most white citizens felt secure.
Racism is not the only factor that could lead to a McCain victory–Democrats have a history of shooting themselves in the foot on the way to the finish line in presidential politics; many are still traumatized by 9/11 and still buy the “kill them all” approach to defeating terrorism embodied by Bush and McCain (though much less than in ’04); and 18-35 year old voters, where Obama is strongest, historically turn out in the lowest numbers in U.S. elections, among other factors. But there is no doubt that racism is playing a major part in the way this election remains close.
The presidential debates could have more significance than in most elections and they begin next Friday.
(Remember, I won’t be here to reply to comments for a few days. Please be patient.)