March 25, 2008
By Ken Krayeske • 8:00 AM EST
O bama's speech on race invites the nation to a conversation. Where we want to take the dialogue he initiates is entirely up to us as a people.
Two gentlemen in West Hartford's Shield Street Post Office yesterday afternoon seemed attuned to Obama's call, as they stood in the front foyer discussing politics and the Iraq war. Best part was that one man was black, and one was white.
I marveled that 100 years ago, that moment in this country was close to impossible, but now it is commonplace, and expected.
Me, I respond to Obama's offer by marrying the war on drugs to his comment that "when [white Americans are] told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time." It's time for us to confront a major facet of race relations in this country: our massive non-white prison population.
Other folks apparently want to keep the dialogue at the lowest common denominator: reptilian hatred. In my email inbox this week, I received a photo of Chelsea Clinton holding a t-shirt proclaiming "My mom is getting her ass kicked by a Negro." Photoshopped tears in Chesea's eyes betray her happy grin to a look of surprising agony as she displays the small t-shirt like she is trying it on.
The only word missing that sounds like it should be there is "Help!" The message feels crafted to appeal to kinship of skin color kind. I see two plausible interpretations, both of which arrive at the same conclusion: "If you are white, then you should be supporting Clinton."
If it is making fun of Chelsea and Hillary for losing to a person of supposedly inferior immutable characteristics, then it is a joke, but getting the laugh at the expense of Obama's hue. And if you can giggle at the punch line, then you are a racist, and therefore, must agree that Clinton needs assistance. Do it for your master race roots.
If this is an appeal to action by Clinton supporters, the desired response isn't door-knocking and phone banking, it's venom and ignorance. In Connecticut, and across the country, most voters are done with primaries.
So if I am a pedestrian voter and Clinton supporter, chances are I can't do a heck of a lot to support her now, and chances are that I didn't do much to support her in the first place. Of all the people who voted for her in the Connecticut primary, I'm certain that not more than one-tenth of one percent of them are volunteering for her now.
Since I'm not out organizing, I'm sitting at my computer, and the image asks me to simply agree that a white woman should not be losing to a black man. The end result, then, is to perpetuate racist speech and the concept of inferior and superior moral and spiritual and intellectual characteristics to persons of differing organic qualities.
In slang a term that plays into the sports metaphor that has become the presidential race, Chelsea's mom's cedes physical prowess to the "Negro," the allegedly lesser person. And that's the only supposed superiority of the other we should hate.
On the plus side, the author of this visual message didn't use the other n-word. But "Negro" is now a bad word, according to my favorite, wikipedia:
"Prior to the shift in the lexicon of American and worldwide classification of race and ethnicity in the late 1960s, the appellation was accepted as a normal neutral formal term both by those of African descent as well as non-African blacks. Now it is often considered an ethnic slur."
In this context, it conjures images "Wanted: Runaway Negro Slave" signs on yellowing paper and Jim Crow and a kindler, gentler racism.
If I called the Clinton camp and asked them about this photo, they would condemn the message and say Chelsea shouldn't be used like that. I doubt they are responsible for it.
Aside from being not slick enough to be the work of a professional operative, it wreaks of desperation, as it devolves the entire nuanced debate to the one unfair and hateful framework that Obama seeks to surmount.
But after Hillary's inability to reject Geraldine Ferraro's bitter disgust with the failure of white privilege, and then hearing Slick Willie's delivery this weekend that Hillary and Republican John McCain are the two presidential candidates who love America, I don't put much above Camp Clinton.
I would much prefer Senator Clinton to rise to the august station of her office and accept Obama's challenge of delving into the dialogue of oppression. Give us what it's like to be a woman in today's world, Mrs. Clinton.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg showed us what it is literally to stand up to the Supreme Court's validation of male dominance in May 2007 when she stood to read her dissent in the workplace discrimination case, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.
Or Clinton could use Obama's invitation to conversation to condemn racism, in its insidious forms like this photo of her daughter, and its more destructive forms like the institutional racism masquerading as the war on drugs. It is the war on drugs that fuels much of the urban crime that Obama claimed is a legitimate factor of white fear.
I can attest that dozens of sane people have asked me why I live where I live, black and white alike. But of course, most are white. And I can't stop my friends from the suburbs who lock their car doors when they drive down Laurel Street and see crowds of blacks standing on the corner of Laurel and Farmington after leaving my condo.
But Hillary Clinton won't choose an issue that doesn't benefit her, thus she is incapable of confronting an issue head-on. So the burgeoning prison population and the disproportionate number of blacks and latinos in jail that was ignored by Obama in his famous speech will neither be addressed by Hillary.
She can cry and emote to dominate coverage and show she is human. Perhaps the tears that Chelsea "weeps" remind of us her mother's moment of vulnerability in New Hampshire. But that was spectacle over substance.
Sure, I want a leader who can grieve and lament, but this image evokes begging, blubbering, and boohooing over something that we need to put to rest. The true test of humanity is demonstrating the courage to wade into dangerous issues like the war on drugs. And until we can hurdle the stigma of race and color, we cannot confront the policies that effectuate and perpetuate racism.
This issue has been around for much longer than this presidential contest, and we could look again to the Supreme Court for guidance here. Justice Harry Blackmun in 1978 wrote: "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way."
But we can't continue to depend on the judiciary for that which demands a political solution.