Wednesday, November 5, 2008
On (the) Race
So here we are: America has voted decisively for the first black president. Yes, it's an historic moment, both in the smaller sense of our current politics, the economic crisis, and the wars in the Middle East; and also in the big picture, with the country still racially divided nearly 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It's probably true what they were saying last night on CNN, that most people who were watching the results come in moment to moment will remember the election for their whole lifetime, that they may even remember where they were and what they were doing the moment it was announced that Barack Obama had gained the 270 electoral votes required to win. I'm still not sure the moment ranks up there with the Kennedy assassination, or the Challenger explosion, or 9/11/01, but I could be wrong.
If I am wrong, it's probably because I'm white. My problem in understanding what's driven people so furiously over the last year and a half leading up to this election is the same thing that causes my very intense curiosity over racial issues. The trouble with this curiosity is that there is no seeing both sides.
It doesn't always work this way; usually there's some way you can get a handle on both points of view. If we were talking about poverty, for instance, it would be completely different. Obviously, the world is biased toward the rich. The "haves" routinely give each other favors such as professional courtesy with the sole purpose of helping each other maintain their "have" status (if anyone can afford giant doctor or lawyer bills, it's other doctors and lawyers). In areas where "haves" are concentrated, anything that remotely reeks of "have not" is treated with disdain and mistrust. Though I drive an eight year old vehicle, I'm thankful it's a popular model. If I still drove one of my old beaters, you can be sure people would call the police when I drove through their neighborhoods to pick up my kids from their friends' houses. As it is, people look at me funny when I do my own auto maintenance in the driveway or cut my own grass.
But anyway, no matter which side you're on (as a "have" or a "have not"), you can always fake being on the other side if you know what you're doing. Also, it's very possible to legitimately switch sides (though decidedly more difficult to go in one direction as opposed to the other.) In either case, it's possible to understand how both of these groups think, how they act and maintain their families, what values they teach their children, and how they talk to each other. It's possible to get right into their culture and figure them out, even if (in the event you happen to come from the other side) it's not always possible to assimilate completely.
Take other issues that divide people and you can almost always get the same effect. Even with gender, every man and woman probably has some person of the opposite sex in his/her life that can clue them in to how that group thinks and operates. Historically, women have even used men's names and gained world fame without the world being the wiser until after the fact.
But with race, you can't do that. With race, it's different.
Sure, in general, most open-minded people probably have friends or even relatives of the "opposite" race (for the sake of argument, I'm going with white and black here) that they can have serious discussions of varying depth with. But these discussions typically only go so far. The nature of prejudice is so ingrained into family upbringing and supported by popular culture, you can be offensive without even realizing it, and so most people are generally afraid to go too deep in their discussions, and maybe they even avoid the topic altogether. In fact, it's considered polite to simply pretend that there are no differences between you and your "opposite"ly colored friends.
I suspect that the only real discussions about race occur between same-race people, though I can't even be certain about that. As a Caucasion (where that term comes from I have no idea; I have no relatives from anywhere NEAR the Caucusus), I can say with absolute certainly that most American white people don't discuss race AT ALL with each other, unless it's done privately at the family level. This isn't to say that these people don't have opinions; on the contrary, most people's opinions on race are very strong, and not always socially acceptable. But the thing is you never know how the other person feels, and so expressing your opinion to a stranger, whether it be some subtle remark or a full-out n-word, could either get you an invitation to a club or drop-kicked in the face. Unless you're the grand dragon of the local KKK chapter, most white people simply won't take that chance.
My observation has been that American blacks don't have these inhibitions. It seems to be okay to be in a store, workplace, classroom, or fast-food line and discuss race in good or bad terms and not have anyone get offended, as long as it's not mixed company. In my discussions with the few black people who have been comfortable enough to talk with me about it, it also seems a fair assumption that many blacks share roughly the same views on race. If this is true with whites, we'll never know because we're so afraid to open our mouths to each other.
Maybe I'm naïve in my surprise that this presidential election fell solidly along racial lines, with Obama getting 96% of the black vote. But as the analyst on CNN said last night, he also got a majority of the vote for most American minorities and the middle-class. I'm definitely NOT surprised that Obama was the favored candidate of Americans who have probably not felt very represented by rich old white men. Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that in black neighborhoods across America, there was celebration last night. Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that one of my more crass coworkers congratulated my black friend as if she'd won the election herself. And maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that many conversations in the lab between whites cease when my friend walks in.
Maybe it shouldn't be surprising, but to me it is, because we went for months in this campaign cycle without race even being discussed (see above where white people are afraid to discuss race in public). Forgive my Forrest Gump ignorance, but it doesn't make any damn sense to me that an issue that clearly has so much hold over public opinion, that so obviously binds people together or drives them apart, that was one of the single biggest factors in this election, should be such a taboo subject. If the election had gone the other way, would American blacks have felt just as strongly in the confirmation of prejudice as they felt about the celebrations? Would American whites have breathed a collective (but silent) sigh, regardless of the threat another Republican in the White House might represent? How can we ever hope to succeed as a nation without eventually calling out the elephant in the living room?
I suppose my feelings at this moment, after the election but before we can assess our new leader's performance, are two-fold: I'm proud to be an American at this moment in history, and I'm embarrassed that it's such a big deal.
I hope Barack Obama's election as President of the United States represents a new and permanent change in America, but that would be a miracle. At the very least, I hope it will open some much needed dialogue and, if not heal, help folks at least understand some old wounds without making new ones. At the most, I hope Obama's term(s) as President are as historic as his campaign; I hope he can deliver on all the promises he's sold us; I hope he is as quick on his feet as he is at the podium; and I hope that whomever wrote his speeches helps him write his policies. The change we stand to see in our nation--in our neighbors, our coworkers, our families, and maybe even in ourselves--is extraordinary, and the implications of the next four years will impact Americans for generations. Now that the election is over, that much is guaranteed.
Because I've only ever been on one side of American race problem, and will only ever be able to see one side, it's impossible for me to do more than hope at this point. Except by talking and listening. If we could all start doing a little of those things a bit more with each other, we'd all be better off in a lot more ways than we realize.
God bless America.