Saturday, March 24, 2012

A question for you while I'm heading home

Vacation time has come to an end and I'm actually writing this on the airplane heading home. Its been an absolutely marvelous week and I am reminded once again just what a lucky human being I am!

As I was packing up this morning, I read this article by Reniqua Allen titled The first black president has made it harder to talk about race in America.

I think Ms. Allen has a point. Basically she's finding that white people want to be off the hook about racism now that we've elected a black president.

I have encountered many people who seem to believe, subconsciously or not, that Obama’s win is proof that America has reached the mountaintop. What more is there to say about race, they ask me, after this country so proudly and overwhelmingly elected a black president? They cite success stories as disparate as Oprah Winfrey, Jay-Z and former Time Warner chief Dick Parsons. But Oprah’s billions don’t counteract the dire poverty and unemployment rates in the black community.­

But as Ms. Allen points out, black success stories have been having this affect on white people since long before Barack Obama was elected president.

I suspect that this is more the issue for Ms. Allen:

Once Obama became president, I thought he might be able to somehow help us break through the status quo of awkwardness and silence on race.

I think this is a fairly common expectation from many on the left - the assumption that we were electing a movement leader rather than an executive head of government. I have to wonder just what she imagines President Obama doing to "break through the status quo of awkardness and silence on race." I happen to think Obama is smart enough to know that a president can't effectively do that. And if he tries, he won't be in office for long.

Ms. Allen seems to know that as well when she admits just how hard the conversations can be.

I’ll be the first to admit that I struggle with starting these conversations myself when I have personally seen so much progress from my grandparents’ generation to my own. But there is still so much to talk about.

How do I articulate that it’s harder for me to find jobs with a “ghetto sounding” name, when a man with a “funny sounding” name holds the highest office in the land?

How do I explain how it feels to have almost every accomplishment that I’ve ever achieved be attributed to affirmative action? Most recently, a white PhD student in my program told me that I would sail through graduate school and land a wonderful gig, despite the difficult job climate, because of the “black thing.”

Or how can I not think of redlining’s impact when I, with my good credit and sizable down payment, receive notification that I, too, had been a victim of a discriminatory lender when I bought my condo?

Yep, the conversations are hard and I suspect that someone giving a speech from the comfort of distance won't cut it. We're going to have to dig in to the awkwardness and silence ourselves and take it on person to person.

Those are some of my thoughts in response to Ms. Allen's very provacative article. My question for you is "how do you think the first black president has affected the conversation about race in this country?" I'd love to hear what you think!

6 comments:

  1. It's not possible to have an honest one. This is nothing new. It's something James Baldwin talked about in an interview. He said "It's like having a dead body on the table. You know it's there and I know it's there. If we can't say anything about the body on the table, then there's nothing we can talk about." I've given up trying to talk about it. If someone isn't picking it up at this point, that person isn't worth my time.

    Vic78

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  2. Ever since hearing AA & white folks equating the "Gates" thing with the slaughter of Trayvon, I dont think there is anything PBO can do about...it!

    We want a Daddy not a President of the whole damn world. But let a war break out with Korea, Iran, etc. etc. then we want a President. I get sick of the whole bunch of snotty-nosed kids who wont grow up! Where is Oprah and why should she have to speak anyway? There is a child dead, slaughtered by a man who couldnt FOLLOW DIRECTIONS AND WHO CANT control himself, why isNt THAT enough?
    Smilingl8dy

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  3. It will never be possible to have a frank and open discussion of race in this country at this time because every time the word "race" is brought up, we have people like Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and the Fox newstainers pop up with a bunch of nonsense that is meant to change, or distort, the subject in some way. I always knew that having BO in the WH wouldn't change a thing. Why? Because the same problems persist today as when I was a black kid growing up in the South in the 1950s. The problems haven't gone away, they only went underground for a short time. There have been millions of Americans living as second class citizens--even after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964. Many Americans don't want to discuss racial inequality because it would mean that the problem still exists, and that it is real. The death of Trayvon Martin is a stark reminder of this, yet, millions of Americans are trying to ignore or minimize it. What these people just don't get is that Trayvon's parents loved him as much as they love their own kids, and that they had similar hopes and dreams for him as they have for their kids. As Tim Wise noted in his last post, it takes empathy to be able to take the concerns of others seriously. Many Americans just don't have empathy for some others. For these individuals, empathy is reserved only for those of their own race. We must also not forget the role the MSM has played in perpetuating racism. The MSM snatches every little story that has to do with black males committing crimes and puts it on a 24 hour loop while it "skims" over crimes committed by some whites (remember Mr. Anderson in Mississippi?) that are just as serious as those committed by black males. Racism is an ingrained part of our culture but so are the differences in which black/white crimes are handled. I know it is difficult for some to understand that in the 21st Century there are still people in this country that value the lives of some more than those of others, but it's a fact--a fact that some of us know and others don't want to acknowledge exists.

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  4. It absolutely is more difficult to talk about race now and I blame a few things.
    For PBO, any time he mentions his race he is subjected to outraged wingnuts on Fox who accuse him of reverse-racism or injecting race into a situation. Part of that (but only part of it) I chalk up to typical Republican opposition to Democratic presidents/ politicians. Race is just the easiest way to attack the current president. From the beginning, I believe that PBO knew that any racial issues or concerns he gave voice to would be discounted and belittled but would overshadow any other message he wanted to discuss so he made a conscious choice to avoid speaking about the very real problem of racism in this country. A big part of the republican opposition to this president speaking about race is privilege: the privilege of a white person to explain to a black person what racism truly is or isn't.
    The biggest problem in race relations in this country is white privilege. We have denied the atrocities committed against the African Americans throughout our history so what could possibly wake us up now? Tim Wise frequently states that in the 50's, during the height of Jim Crow, some 75% of white people thought that black children had equal access to education as white kids and that black people were perfectly happy with Jim Crow laws. That percentage is the same today. We have never truly acknowledged our current and historical oppression of people of color. White privilege allows us to assume that the police treat black men the same way they do white men--so if a black man is shot by cops, he must have deserved it. We refuse to acknowledge the two separate realities in which the black and white races exist.
    This denial is only getting more ingrained because of the coming shift in demographics. The notion of a white minority is frightening to most white people. We see (even if we refuse to admit its there) the effect minority status has had on people of color so perhaps a panic sets in. For if white is a minority, and if the people of color assert their new majority status, this country may become a true meritocracy and that must scare people senseless.
    I don't know for sure but I suspect that lots of folks take comfort in the welfare myths and criminal fantasies brought about by Ronald Reagan. If equality in this country persists despite the billions of dollars the government has allocated to entitlement programs, maybe African Americans really are beneath white people. I hear this rationalization every time I discuss racism with my family members. That lie helps people sleep at night but they never quite understand that racism is embodied in that kind of mindset. The constant us vs them of daily life for most white people solidifies the superiority they feel is their birthright. Our privileged lives allow us to deny the lived experiences of people of color. This is why racism is so hard to talk about--because so many white men and women refuse to believe it is a continuing problem and it offends them for others to bring up something that they spend so much energy denying.

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  5. I only think it seems more difficult right now because of the heightened pushback from the right. They are frightened ...the world they felt comfy in is inexorably changing as the nation's demographics shift.

    Thinking back 20 years or 30 years or 40 ...look how conversations have changed. Whether or not the right and some on the left can cope with discussions of privilege - it has become a part of the conversation.

    The voices shoving back against Lou Dobbs, Rushbo, Pat Buchanan ...and other media bigots are being heard.

    Yes-the election of BHO had driven a lot of quieter racists mad and they are way more open about their bias and hatred but frankly that's a good thing.

    As we used to say round my way 'let it all hang out"

    I've actually had some interesting conversations with my republican neighbors - some of whom are quiet distressed by the virulence. That - combined with the war on women is driving them over into our column.

    I have lived through cross-burnings, church bombings and the like.

    I have not forgotten Emmett Till. Was thinking about that - and contrasting it to the response to the death of Trayvon Martin. The fact that many white people are standing up and saying "I am Trayvon" - is significant. Though there was an outpouring of organizing around Till's death - spearheaded by the NAACP and there was white media coverage - I can't say there was the same impact.

    Of course facebook, you tube and social networks are making a difference.

    I'm not overly worried. Since I never imagined I'd see a black President in my lifetime, I'm prepared to weather the inevitable pushback.

    This is a protracted struggle. since racism is embedded in the foundations of this nation it will take as long to dig it up and root it out as it did to plant it.

    Our job is simply to keep on moving forward. No matter what.

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  6. Sorry I'm a little late to this discussion.

    I'm with Denise:

    "I only think it seems more difficult right now because of the heightened pushback from the right. They are frightened ...the world they felt comfy in is inexorably changing as the nation's demographics shift."

    I feel like the country is like a big zit. I'm not talking about peoples of color's lives and understandings, but white people. For white people, race been under the surface for a long time--since Reagan got all smiley at least. Now, it's like a big, nasty zit up and broke out as white people looked at themselves in the mirror on the morning of November 5, 2008. It was right there before, but now it's visible.

    There the simile ends. Nothing is being said publicly in the press in all this ugliness that we all know hasn't been normal conversation since roughly the mid-1500's. I do not mean that as hyperbole, either. We really are looking at a 500-year process here, and this is another part of it.

    I'd note that it's standard Alinsky--that name again--to get your adversary to expose themselves publicly. It's happening here.

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