From time to time in this space, I have spoken of race and racism.
As a Southern boy, I grew up surrounded by racists and racism. I grew up with persons who referred to their farm hands as “my people” (and they meant it with full paternalistic overtones). And that was amongst the kinder references.
Granted, the outward manifestations of racism weren’t as bad in my part of the world as they were in some parts of the South. Black folks were not expected, for example, to step into the street to allow white folks to pass on the sidewalk.
They were just expected to give way, without actually stepping into the gutter.
I know all the code words of the racist.
And when the racists come up with new code words, I recognize them by some kind of subliminal instinct. Because I’ve lived in that life, thank you very much.
I know what it is like to be complimented by the old black cleaning lady (the same lady who took care of me while my brother was being born 14 years earlier and whose grandson was my earliest playmate, aside from my brother, and who was as kind to me as ever anyone I knew) as being special because, for God’s sake, I let her ride in the front seat of the car with me, rather than making her ride in the back seat.
Ride in the front seat.
I never thought to let her do otherwise, for heaven’s sake, because, thank God, my parents taught me to be equally polite to everyone, even those who had the handicap (I speak from the view of those times, not from the view of today) of being “colored.”
I watched the racists switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, as the Democratic Party stopped playing the race card, even as the Republican Party played it with glee.
And with the run of Senator Obama for the nomination of the Democratic Party for president, boy, have the racist code words started to echo off the wall.
The legacy of institutionalized, legislated racism in this country did not disappear when our elected representatives incongruously assembled passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It was two years after the passage of that bill when one–one!–black student entered my all-white high school. It was the next year when seven–seven!–more black students entered my high school. And this in an area where 65% of the student population was and is black.
And I still remember how worked up my Latin teacher was when, in a local newspaper article, my name was transposed with that of one of my fellow black students in a photo of the track team. I didn’t care, but she was ready to die on my behalf and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t mortified.
Gunnar Myrdal famously concluded that the “Negro problem” in America is a “white man’s problem.”
And so correct he was. And nothing that has happened in the sixty years since his pronouncement has impeached his conclusion in any way.
It is time to stop ignoring this history, time to stop pretending that the 1960’s civil rights and voting rights laws fixed everything, time to stop with the damned code words.
And time to stop wondering why minority people get offended when representatives of the white majority say rude, offensive, disgusting things.
To my fellow white folks, I say, “Grow up, already.”
It is time to realize that, even though the concept of race is, frankly, bullshit by any scientific measure, it is a great big
elephant, no, there’s got to be a better word, elephants are bad gorilla in the room that no one is willing to deal with except through code words and innuendo. And that the institutionalized racism of chattel slavery, the institutionalized racism of Jim Crow laws that I grew up under, the institutionalized de facto segregation of Yankee cities that exists till this day (just watch a random Law and Order episode if you think the effects don’t linger–the show would not be so believable if it did not seem real) still poison our society.
So come now the racists, making a big fuss about some remarks by Senator Obama’s pastor.
I’ve mentioned before that, as far as I have observed, what weds Protestants to their churches is most likely the congregation (though certain pastors, like, for example, Ted Haggard, seem to have a magnetism all their own).
Pastors come, pastors go, I’ve never had a pastor in any church I attended with whom I agreed on everything.
I know that my father would not have left the little Baptist church in which he was raised and which he attended for 82 years because one of the pastors offended him; he would have soldiered on, because pastors come and pastors go.
But now come the racists attacking Senator Obama because of selected comments of the pastor of his church.
Give me a goddamned break from the racists for once please.
And just pay attention to what matters.
For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.