The Things We Can't Talk About, When We Do Talk About Race, And Barack Obama
by nycweboy1, Fri Apr 25, 2008 at 05:07:24 PM EDT
Although this is my first entry at MyDD, I have been blogging for about a year and a half on my own; the election, and writing about it, has helped attract readers, and bolster my confidence as a writer, things for which I am grateful. It's a little odd to me that I would choose a dicey subject like our racial divides as a jumping off point, but it's something I care about (and have written about, as the links will show), and I think someone has to try. My intent, of course, is not to offend, but to invite a dialogue, and a way to get into a difficult subject. Whether it succeeds or not... is up to you.
It doesn't surprise me that one outcome of this week's primary results is that the tensions of talking about the dynamics of this election season have gotten rougher; a lot of Obama supporters - which could easily be described as "the media" - have had to readjust to the fact that Clinton's win in PA was solid, as good as her supporters expected, if not better, and made it clear that things we'd been saying were turning out to be true. And that, in turn, has led to some expected hand-wringing about the kind of divide the results exposed.
Put another, less PC way... it's gotten hard to ignore that some white people don't vote for Barack Obama.
The question, of course is why. And in order to discuss that, naturally, we need to talk about some difficult subjects. And race, really is only part of it. It's also class, and economics, and cultural tensions... but simmering under and around all of it is people talking frankly about race in a way that most people find uncomfortable, a way that has to acknowledge perceptions and prejudices without, necessarily, giving into them.
And I mean that both ways: some, I think, struggle with a way to talk about working class white voters that doesn't resort to "redneck" or "trailer trash" type stereotyping; the opposite, of course, is sweeping generalizations about black people that are clearly prejudiced if not flat out racist. Complicating it are perceptions, stereotypes and casual notions many of us hold, things we rarely admit, or discuss with strangers.
This tension, I think, is why Obama's fine "conversation on race" speech was okay, but not great. In laying out the notion that we had to move a "conversation on race" to a new level and talk in a different way, Obama himself offered virtually no ideas on how to change it or how to do it differently. He made it clear what he thought of as "bad" or the "rhetoric of the past"... but left out the part about the future, except to suggest somehow, in a utopian way, we would get there. Well, here's hoping. Still.
But we're not there; and just a casual stroll around the blogosphere can illustrate it pretty starkly. People are angry. Charges fly. Everything is touchy, and dicey. And the ground keeps shifting.
I think there's a few things we should all keep in mind, and that might help clear the air, or at least keep this discussion on track:
- It's entirely possible that white people who don't vote for Barack Obama are not racist. Exit polling in Pennsylvania reiterated what has been seen across the nation: that while some minority of white voters do vote on race as a criteria, most do not; those who do "vote on race" do not, necessarily vote for Hillary Clinton (which is to say some vote for Obama... and understand the complexity of the question). Broad brush assertions that "working class voters have a race problem" will get us nowhere, and only further cloud the real problems Obama has attracting working class voters that are beyond race. Those are ones we need to talk about.
- We do, though, have a problem with racism in this country, and we shouldn't pretend otherwise. Ignoring the complexity of what it means to have a black man running for President doesn't help either, something I've had to watch myself in overstating the notion that there aren't prejudiced working class whites, just as there are among most groups. No one, I think, should pretend that results we've seen in states from Mississippi to Georgia, from South Carolina to Tennessee, across the South, don't reflect the depth of a racial divide that remains ugly and difficult (nor pretend that people outside the South are somehow immune, or better). That, too, needs to be confronted. However, we can't do that without raising it, without climbing under and around the ugliness and seeing it for what it is. And too often, we shun the people who talk about it, especially when they are not "appropriate" bringers of the discussion.
- And then, there's the even more difficult discussion of prejudices within the black community. We can't have this conversation while pretending one set of people are untouched by prejudice; all of us carry stereotypes and preconceptions that need to be examined and confronted. In Pennsylvania, half of all black voters said race was not a consideration in their decision about a candidate for President, and 91% of them voted for Obama. This isn't to say people aren't being honest; it's simply to say that there's a complexity to talking about race that people don't see, or can't acknowledge.
Look, I don't have the answers. I'm as uncomfortable bringing this up as anyone, and I know what i say is as subject to seeming as prejudiced as anyone else. I don't claim the high ground here... simply the middle. I've lived this country's unique (to put it mildly) tensions on race from all sorts of angles and sides; the only thing I know to do is not overgeneralize, and to keep in mind that no person's take on race can be predicted or assumed... something I learned, often painfully, dealing with friends, not enemies. We learn, I think, that race is a "third rail" topic of discussion among friends first, and most of all. At least until we wade into it.
The bottom line here, for me, is that we're going to have this discussion, like it or not, agree with it or not. My own suggestions, from a life of this, is patience, tolerance, and some measure of acceptance. To hear out the worst, as well as the best. To realize there are things on which we all can't agree, and there are some things we just have to live with. And that progress, and change, on a lot of this stuff, is slow, and yes, often generational. And sometimes not even that. Most of all though, I think we have to stop being afraid - afraid of prejudice, afraid of each other... and afraid of ourselves. And maybe, just maybe, we can move this conversation forward. But let's not get too hopeful too soon. There's just too much history that we've never discussed, and too much silence. And that's our choice: Silence... or this.Crossposted from NYCweboy.com