Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Race, Volume 1

One of the things that I didn't think was a big deal in my support for Barack is his biracialness. I too am the son of a Black man and a white woman, and I too was born during the civil rights movement (just a few years after Barack). I just figured that the fact that he and I share many political ideas and convictions was just coincidence (or evidence of his good sense).

But after his speech on race, I have a new appreciation of how our shared biracial heritage has shaped our world views. Most Black folk have to be bi-cultural. We have to understand the ways of white folk so that we can navigate in their world. And even in our little hamlets and ghettos, it's still their world.

But biracial folks are put in a situation where we actually have to be able to see the world from both perspectives. For some, it's just too damned difficult to be forced to have multiple perspectives - it robs us of the easy, absolute, no-gray-area decision. It can create a situation where every sentence ends with "on the other hand."

But for the fortunate among us, that multi perspective vision creates an ability to see solutions based on common ground where others see only problems and division. I had believed that Barack has the 'good' version of that vision, but his speech on race in Philadelphia (coincidentially, my home town) proved it.

There's a lot in that speech, and I'll get to more of it later. But to me, the absolute biggest thing in the speech came after several paragraphs explaining in gentle but quite powerful terms, exactly how the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow affect modern Black folk. The most important part of his speech, the part that shows he has an understanding of the situation that is far riccher than that of most people was this:
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

In that short paragraph, he showed working class white people (and those who have been working class, or who have working class family or friends) that he understands their issue. He demonstrated a link between the effects of slavery, Jim Crow and institutional racism and the frustration that comes from thinking that someone else is getting an unfair advantage.

But note that he didn't say it was the same thing. Or that being white and feeling put upon by Affirmative Action was justified. He just said that he understood it. In fact, he didn't even say that Blacks were even benefiting from Affirmative Action, just that when a working class white person hears that Blacks are getting a benefit for something that that white person never did wrong, he understands that "resentment builds."

The reason why this is so brilliant is that he has pointed out a tiny bit of common ground for people who want to talk to each other to stand on. In the short term, that little bit of ground is not going to be big enough for the really angry on either side, but it is enough to get us started. And if we can listen to each other, and try very hard to understand where the other is coming from, maybe we can learn enough to understand that we are in this together. And by this, I mean this country, which is at war, in a recession (or worse), has inadequate schools, crumbling infrastructure and a divide between the haves and the have-nots that is threatening the very concept of the American Dream.

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciated this post - very well said. I still have tears in my eyes over that speech. Coincidentally, Philly's my hometown too, as well as my husband's, that definitely added impact to the speech on the personal tip. (Even though I haven't been to the Constitution Center yet. Shame on me!)

    Thanks for commenting on my blog, I'm trying to be more understanding of folks.LOL

    Keep writing, I'm enjoying reading!