(10 am – promoted by ek hornbeck)
This is a diary I posted on dkos yesterday. I am pleased enough with it that I want to make it my first post here on docudharma. Looking around the site and seeing who is posting here, I recognize a lot of names as people I respect from dkos and have seen a lot less of recently. So I expect to be here more as a haven from the relentless Obama diaries. Although this is technically an Obama essay concerning an absurd media “issue,” the point of this diary is to take a look at race, and to make explicit the racism behind the Rev. Wright controversy.
(But one thing first: because I can, I want to say right off the top that you have to be an idiot to blithely assume there is no chance that 9/11 was a conspiracy. Ahhhh! The smell of freedom.)
Oh yeah, and thanks to pfiore8 for inviting me here.
So here goes nothing. Please be kind.
This is the third title for this essay. The second dkos title was Is Obama White Enough? But I wanted to make plain here that I’m don’t intend to walk into your lovely blog trailing Obama mania on the sole of my shoe like toilet paper. This essay is about race.
I don’t know how Barack Obama should have reacted to his media-created dilemma concerning Rev. Wright. And I’m not going to speculate on the affects his speech may have. FWIW, my impression is that he continues to be presidential, decisive, and compassionate. Today’s events have had no effect on my fervent support of his candidacy.
What I want to point out is that the events of yesterday and today highlight the racial divide in our country. And the ways in which media coverage has sharpened the divide and created conditions likely to foster bitterness on one side and defensiveness on the other.
When it comes to racial harmony, we’ve certainly come a long way baby. When I grew up in middle Georgia in the 50’s and 60’s, I never once saw a well-dressed or well-spoken black person. People openly used the word “nigger” and nigger jokes were common-place. The most insidiously dangerous expression to me at the time was “The only thing worse than a nigger is a nigger-lover.” The paved street I grew up on went down about three blocks from my house before crossing the railroad tracks. On the other side of the tracks, the streets became dirt, yards were swept dirt, and driving by the houses, one could see right through the open front doors and on through the open back doors. Even the dogs seemed to be racist, with “white” dogs barking preferentially at blacks and vice versa. Sitting in our tree house, just on the “right” side of the tracks, my friends and I could sometimes watch our African American neighbors playing baseball in a dirt lot carved out between the stacks of logs waiting for the sawmill. The “ball” they used seemed to be a kind of home-made, tape-wrapped invention. I would watch them and feel very other, wondering about their lives with only a dim appreciation of what they suffered.
I loved the maid who came to clean up our house and cook. Even though we were very poor, we had a black maid just like everybody else. When civil rights talk began penetrating Dublin, and when the local police were investigated by the FBI for torturing blacks (I’ll skip the details), my eyes began to open and I would probe Annie Kate for details of her life. Information was not forthcoming. She had to be so careful to keep in her place, and I was scaring her by doing things like invite her to ride in the front seat when I drove her home. She quietly went on to the back seat. But I did get one remark out of her that I cherish to this day for the exhilarating image it evokes: “This Sunday night I’ll be in church, singing and praying and beating sticks.” “How exotic,” I wondered. “What exactly does it mean?”
I could listen to an African American church on the radio on Sunday nights. The worship bore almost no resemblance to what took place at the well-ordered First Baptist Church. We enjoyed a terrific music director, who would soothe us with Bach from the organ during collection, then lead the choir in a sublime rendition of the Doxology. The music was my favorite part of the service, but it was controlled and limited. On WRXI on Saturday night, I could hear rhythmic, free-form singing going on and on. Had I not known what it was, I would not have guessed that it was a church service.
Well, I don’t know what goes on in an AA church in Dublin today, but I would bet my bottom dollar that it still differs quite significantly from what happens in the white church across town. Change has come, but not THAT much change. On visits to Dublin over the years, the visible changes have gratified me. The first time I was pleasantly stunned was when I saw black and white children playing pick-up baseball together. “This is a good thing,” I thought. Then I would be helped in stores by beautiful, well-dressed and well-spoken black clerks. “They’re making enough money to take better care of themselves,” I would think with satisfaction. And acceptance by whites of blacks as being worthy of respect as equals has come a long way in the South, it seems to me.
The Methodist Church in Dublin was torn by a moral quandary during the civil rights era. The question arose: what will we do if African Americans (it would have been “negroes” in those days) shows up demanding to attend our church. Those possessed of a nearly miraculous tolerance for cognitive discord held that there was no room in their Christian church for blacks. I am proud to say that a significant number of others insisted that the church is open to all humans, a position I make bold to claim is somewhat more in keeping with the teachings of Jesus. This latter group left their church and formed Pine Street Methodist. My general impression was that the congregation at Pine Street was more likely to be poor, working class, and less well-educated than their “more chosen” former congregation. They were more likely to express an emotional devotion to the spirit of the church than those they left behind, and more likely to make a sincere effort in include their Lord in their daily living, as opposed to the many others who attended church more for social show than spiritual sustenance. The Pine Forest Methodists are the same people who are voting for Bush today and are more easily convinced that Obama is a radical Muslim. But the tragedy of the manipulation of naive and good-hearted people is a discussion for another day.
In the event, the troublesome horde of blacks demanding admission to worship with their white employers never materialized. In all likelihood, the black population of Dublin never even knew of the agonized racial debate taking place in the white community. My point being that things are definitely more equal, but not that much more integrated.
In 1966, six incredibly courageous AA students attended my white high school in Dublin. Before they came, our principal and our superintendent marched us all into the auditorium and gave a coded talk which I could scarcely decipher. I do remember that it contained the surprisingly honest message that we better work hard if we didn’t want to end up digging ditches. Apparently, belief in the inferiority of all negroes was more tenuous than the rhetoric would have led one to believe.
Today Dublin has one high school for whites and blacks (and a very large and well-funded Christian charter school on the outskirts of town). In my day, our all-white band would assemble for town parades. Next to us would be the all-black band. The instruments were the same, but our drum major marked time stiffly. In astonishment, I would watch the all-black band warm up. My descriptive power is limited, but I’ll just say that they would strut their stuff in a manner that involved trombones pointing this way and that in unison, a drum corps tearing up the skins, and a drum major with a spine of rubber. It was fun to watch.
A few years ago, I attended a Friday night football game in Dublin. Well, the same kind of lively physical demonstrations have made it on to the Dublin High School football field in the person of black cheerleaders and black members of the integrated band. Yet the integration is limited, because in the bleachers black families all sit together in one part of the stands while white families congregate in their area. Interactions are friendly enough when they occur, and rooting for specific players seems race-free.
All this is to say that there are still very significant cultural differences between the races in the US today. These differences would cause most blacks to feel ill-at-ease on white turf, even in the welcoming Pine Forest Methodist Church. And similarly for whites alone in a black setting. I don’t say “unsafe,” or “hated” as would have been the case in my youth. And this is progress. Despite the headlines, there is a lot of goodwill on both sides, even an eagerness to get on with leaving hate and bigotry behind. Sadly, these impulses are inconvenient to people who are enjoying a higher standard of living than they should, in part by disempowering wide swathes of the voting public. This disempowerment depends in no small measure on dividing and conquering, and in using primal fears to distract from the issues of real importance.
John McCain is afforded the nuanced respect of not being asked to answer for every statement made by the hate-filled minister who has endorsed him. John Hagee is understood by white America. He represents a bigotry and hatred that we whites are very familiar with among our neighbors. But we don’t want to fight with our neighbors every day. Knowing them to have some good qualities as we do, we don’t want to completely disown them for some of their beliefs. After all, this is America, land of the free. If push comes to shove, we’ll move to our own church and find a way to live and let live. When it comes to voting, most us recognize bigotry and reject it without needing to call out every loathesome statement made by the bigots in our midst. And anyway, in some unconscious way, we understand how people might come to feel they way they do about the black or gay “other.”
Obama, and by extension black America, is not allowed such space. My impression is that Rev. Wright is easily understood and loved by black America. As Obama has pointed out, he represents an older time and his attitudes are understandable in the context of his age. His paranoia, if I may employ shorthand to name a complex matter, may not be shared by younger blacks. The AA man with a good chance of becoming our next president says he does not see the country in the same light as his former minister. But that is not enough for the established powers. Unlike Pastor Hagee, Rev. Wright must be completely and utterly rejected and denounced. There is no room here for neighborly disagreement and mutual toleration in the interests of a harmonic body politic. It is not enough to marginalize the views of Rev. Wright. No, Rev. Wright much be kept unambiguously apart from real power in America.
Today I was saddened that Barack Obama felt forced to drive a wedge between himself and a man he has respected, and by extension between himself and his African American roots. Rev. Wright would never have been made Secretary of the Interior, we all know. Nor will Obama, as President, launch an investigation into the role of the CIA in bringing AIDS to the AA community. But that is not enough. The media will not rest until Obama has repeatedly and firmly rejected a nuanced, mutually respectful relationship with the man who married him. This is sad, disrespectful, and ultimately racist.
The question has become not whether Obama is black enough. It’s whether he is white enough. This forceful rejection of a significant part of black culture constitutes disfranchisement of the black community. How much of white culture today could withstand the unforgiving judgment brought to bear on Rev. Wright? What percentage of sermons from white pulpits contains rhetoric widely perceived as anathema to some part of our American way? We live with these contradictions, conflicts, and ambiguities as a necessary part of our free society. But the media has chosen not to allow space for the particular kinds of contradiction, ambiguity, and conflict natural to the African American community.
I want Obama to be elected. And I accept that progressive candidates walk a fine line when it comes to allaying the prejudiced fears of an ignorant populace. People have worked hard to learn to live together, and there is still a lot of work to do before we can truly feel comfortable with each other. But my sense is that the country as a whole has moved beyond fear-based racism. Instead of helping the cause, the traditional media is doing everything in its power to exacerbate and mine lingering prejudices. It is a giant step backward when the black candidate has to announce reassuringly that if white America will let him sit with them in the bleachers, he promises not to bring any of his rowdy friends with him.