If Race is Not Welcome, Are Blacks?
By Leonce Gaiter
Sunday, August 03, 2008 at 03:22 PM
Everybody considers Barack Obama through the self-reflective prism of his blackness while pretending to ignore the fact that Obama is black. White Democratic primary voters made all manner of unsupported assumptions about Obama based largely on his skin. There was absolutely no indication that he was a progressive true believer.In fact, in May, 2007, the New Yorker ran an in-depth Obama profile entitled "The Conciliator." His background and actions suggested a highly pragmatic, malleable politician. Voting for him, primary supporters made a statement about themselves (see Salon's "It's OK to vote for Obama because he's black"), and made assumptions based on the "black saint/black radical" historical narrative, assuming that this decidedly centrist politician was going to somehow "heal the divisions" in America (for the first time in its history) and/or usher in a radically progressive renaissance.
Blacks, seeing his skin and appreciating his adoption of black culture, ignored his actual distance from it. A white mother and an African father means he formatively absorbed none of the cultural heritage of American descendants of African slaves. But overwhelmed by the historical first, and being ourselves largely blind to our own cultural distinction, we rallied behind a candidate choice George Will properly identified as "eccentric."
Neither blacks nor whites can overtly mention his race save to point out his "first" status. Blacks can't because doing so would "raise the topic" and if it's a topic, he loses. Raising it is tantamount to a race crime. White conservatives can't mention it because their entire modern association with race has been to exploit suspicion and hatred for electoral success. White progressives can't mention it outside a very narrow perimeter because if they do, they're accused of racism, as Bill Clinton was for comparing Obama's vote totals to those of another black candidate in a state with a large black voting bloc.
We must all pretend to believe that race isn't there. The Washington Post quoted John McCain as saying, "He brought up the issue of race; I responded to it. I don't want that issue to be part of this campaign. I'm ready to move on. And I think we should move on."
He retreats behind the playground retort, "I didn't start it. He did!" But McCain's statement acknowledges that the issue exists. He refers to it as "that issue." He just doesn't want to be seen addressing it directly. However, he is more than willing to address it indirectly by insisting that his opponent has addressed it by simply acknowledging his own blackness. Very clever.
Race is an issue in this campaign. Whether or not Americans are willing to see a black man -- even a half-white one with no inherent ties to America's racist crimes -- occupy the highest office in the land is the issue that dare not speak its name: What do some Americans fear about a black man in the Oval Office? Do they fear he will seek revenge for historical crimes against blacks? Do they fear he will be too strong an advocate for black Americans? Do they feel he will give short shrift to white Americans? Do they fear that he will simply remind them of the bulk of this nation's history that they'd rather forget? Are racist impulses still strong enough that many simply fear or hate the idea of a black man with power over them? These are the unasked questions. To ask them would unleash America's demons, the snarling beasts we've locked in a cage in the basement, whose diminished, yet still menacing growls we pretend not to hear.
If race, its place in American history and the American present are all unwelcome topics, it only stands to reason that the people at whom the word "race" is most often focused -- Afro-Americans -- are equally objectionable. We are, after all, the reason that the caged beast exists. Our very skin is the source of all of that discomfort.
On July 29, the House of Representatives quietly passed a non-binding resolution apologizing to African Americans for the crimes of slavery and the Jim Crow laws that stood until 1965. It was the first time the federal government had apologized for those crimes of the distant and recent past. Oddly, it was not big news; no front-page status. Stories that appeared highlighted fears that an apology would bolster calls for reparations, that most discomfiting topic.
The New York Times recently reported that even doctors, the stalwarts of the "deny and defend" strategy, are learning that earnest apologies dilute the anger that fuels expensive lawsuits. The most maddening thing to the injured is the insistence that they were not wronged, when the facts state otherwise. When they know in their hearts and souls -- when they hear in the voices of their parents and grandparents -- the pain and humiliation, the results we all still live with, such denials gall. To deny the injury is to deny the wronged -- to deny their rights, their value, their very humanity. It's a re-perpetration of the original crime in schematic.
Until Americans realize that if we take pride in America's greatness, we must also take responsibility for her crimes, we will continue to lie to each other and to ourselves about what we see in black skin. We will continue to inwardly cringe at its associations and wish it, and therefore its wearers, away. We will continue our vain attempts to emotionally disappear 12 percent of our population and the vast majority of our history. And we will do so with all the grace and dignity of John McCain's Britney/Paris TV spot.
What do some Americans fear about a black man in the Oval Office?
I think that you may have asked too narrow a question. The "some Americans" to whom you refer fear a black man in the oval office largely because they fear a black man, period. Doesn't matter whether he's in the oval office, in the cubicle next to them, in a house just down the street, or in the seat next to them on a city bus.
In my experience of being a white man talking to other white people, the source of the fear (and dislike; it's not always fear in the purest sense of that term) varies from person to person. Some of the sources are the same as spur hatred/distrust of any group that is "different" than the mainstream: blacks, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, transsexuals, and on and on. Other sources are specific to black people.
Some white people expect that the black people (not just men) they meet will be angry at white people; some of that group even thinks the anger is at least partially justified. A racist white male that was in one of my college classes always made a point of following up his statement that he didn't like blacks by adding, "but if I was black, I'd pick up a gun."
Some white people--like people of all colors and backgrounds--simply fear and distrust anything they don't know and/or understand. If they grew up in white enclaves and never really dealt with black people until they were grown up, black people seem frighteningly different.
Some white people fear the image they have of black people from television, movies, and newspapers, and we all know that this image is generally not good. I have known several people who lived in almost all white suburbs, saw news story after news story of blacks committing crimes in the central city, and refused to set foot in that city under the misconception that black criminals swarmed the streets at all times, looking for white victims. I knew some suburban white people who worked in the central city, but took public transportation (expresses that never stopped in city neighborhoods) to the corner where they worked, rushed into the building, stayed in at lunch, and reversed this path at the end of the day.
Some white people continue to believe that black people are subhuman--"not like us" when it comes to reason, emotional stability, etc. That was one of the central justifications for slavery, and it has not died out nearly as much as we like to think. Not long ago I came across a right wing blog comment that "someone" who had been assigned to an Obama security detailed reported that Obama "smelled." A variation on this is the belief that runs deep in some white people that a black person who has done well has only succeeded because of affirmative action or some similar advantage "just handed" to black people.
Some white people have generalized from a past bad experience with one or two black people--I was robbed/intimidated/beaten/insulted by a specific black man, and now I hate/fear "them."
Some white people have long family histories of thinking of whites and blacks as competing groups; if blacks begin to do better, it will come at the expense of white people. I heard several anti-black quotes from white Democratic primary voters which reflected that view.
Racism is, indeed, alive and well. We're going to find out pretty soon exactly how deep it goes and how widespread it is. Take the recent flap over Obama stating that "nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face, so what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me....You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills."
Immediately the McCain people claimed "foul" and started screaming "race card." All Obama did was recognize the reality that "they"--the people who want McCain elected, not necessarily McCain himself--will play on all those irrational fears that rise up from the fact that Obama does not, in fact, look like the people whose pictures appear on our currency. But in a country where racism remains, yet where the subject cannot be overtly & publicly addressed, Obama cannot even try to preempt racist attacks without running the risk of being labelled a racist himself.
The fact is that if Obama was Latino, or Asian, or Jewish, a part of the white population in this country would not vote for him because he was Latino, or Asian, or Jewish.
There is simply some white people in this country who will always be prejudice toward any color of people who is not like their own. They simply choose to be that way, and simply choose to stay that way.
So, if Obama was Latino, these same prejudice white people would find a hundred reasons why he should not be elected.
If Obama was Asian, the same prejudice white people in this country would find a hundred reasons why he should not be elected.
If Obama was Jewish, the same prejudice white people in this country would find a hundred reasons why they could not vote for him.
It must be admitted that Obama is being supported by a large part of the white population in this country, and that fact shows that we have indeed come a long way, and that a large part of the population choose to be are mature, evolved human beings.
In this country, where we live among people who have choosen to be evolved, and mature, SADLY, we also live among people who will always choose to discriminated against another human because of the shade of their skin.