Wednesday, March 19, 2008

About race, and the speech...

Racism is one of the most important issues for me, just as much as religion is. This matter with Reverend Wright involves both, coincidentally. While I can speak very passionately to both, I cannot speak nearly as eloquently as Barack Obama can, not even close. His speech was powerful, sweeping in scope, and while he included examples of his own experiences around the issue of race, his speech was not about himself so much as the issue of race in America, and how this issue affects all of us.

I agree completely, but my words are usually more harsh. In fact, even though I am white, and I am atheist, I identify more with Reverend Wright on this issue. While I might not have gone so far as to say "God damn America," I have used some pretty harsh words when discussing religion, racial issues, and the right-wingnuts. I think that there is a common denominator between my attitude on racism and on religion, and that is ignorance. Blind, willful ignorance.

It is ignorance that I find intolerable, but even more so when ignorance is used as a weapon or a tool to oppress or marginalize others.

I spent a lot of my formative years growing up in the South. Most of my family is from the South, and most of them still live there. My grandparents on one side of the family who were a little more tolerant referred to black people as "coloreds," while other grandparents used every racial epithet in the book, from coon to nigger, when referring to black people.

Being in a military family, I had the benefit of moving around a lot, and meeting and becoming friends with people of all ethnicities. I grew up mostly color blind, knowing but in no way caring that my friends might look different from me. I have no recollection of my parents ever having any problem with my friends being of different color or ethnicities, and to me, my black friends were no different than my Hispanic friends, or my "ginger" friends. So it was very troubling for me when I would hear that grandparent, or that aunt, or that cousin use words like nigger, or spic, or what have you. It was especially surprising when I would hear that language from a family member of Native American descent. My father's father was Native American, and my mother's father was of Native American descent. As I grew to understand, though, the family had always hidden that part of our heritage, because Native Americans - and particularly half-breeds - were subjects of racism as well. But this made it all the more disquieting that these same people would speak of other races in this way.

Being white, I have never experienced what non-whites have had to experience. Sure, I've felt out of place when I've been the only white guy at an all-black party. But I've also felt that way when I've been in churches for weddings and funerals. But I cannot know what it feels like to be the only black person in an all-white gathering, and I cannot know what it feels like to be belittled for no reason other than the color of my skin. While I did learn early on that I have descended from Native Americans, I was still white and regarded as such. By that time of the mid-1970s, it was somewhat cool to have Indian blood anyway. While I qualify for the same or similar benefits as American Indians, I refuse to take them because I have not earned them. Not I, nor my family, has ever been forced off our land or from our property because of our skin color, nor have any of us ever been repressed or repressed for such. To take advantage of these benefits, whether legal or not, would be morally wrong. Knowing the difference between right and wrong is the one thing I did learn, but not just from my parents, I also learned it by observing the actions of some and what the effect is on others. While I cannot know what black people experience, I can have compassion for them from what I have observed.

I knew that it was wrong of my grandfather to refer to black people as niggers, because I've seen the pain and the humiliation on the face of a black classmate when she was called that by white kids. Apart from it being wrong, what made me even more angry is that my grandfather could never say why he had something against black people. To him, they were just niggers because of their skin color, and that's all that mattered. He was ignorant.

Despite all of his failings, and his racist attitudes, and all the hateful, angry, mean-spirited things he would sometimes say, I still loved him very much, and I learned a lot of good things from him too. My grandfather and I were very close. He remains a profound influence on me, and I will never forsake him, regardless of our differences. But his beliefs were not mine, his attitude toward black people was not the same as mine, and while I did learn much from him, I also knew that he was wrong about a lot of things. And it would be wrong for anyone to judge me based on anything they knew about my grandfather. Just like it is wrong for people to judge Barack Obama based on what little they know - or have heard - of his pastor.

All that said, there is still a serious problem with race in this country. I do not actually believe that the people who are judging Obama by Rev. Wright's speech believe he holds the same views as his pastor. If they really believed that way, they would have held George W. Bush accountable for the hateful things Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have been saying for years, but even especially so the things they said after Hurricane Katrina and the attacks of 9/11. They would be looking more deeply into Hillary Clinton's involvement with the Senate Prayer Breakfasts (also here), or so many politicians' involvement with that crazy Rev. Moon. They don't really think Barack Obama believes exactly the way Rev. Wright does. They are judging Barack Obama this way because he is black.

If these same people who think that Obama is influenced so much by Rev. Wright, they would have to believe the same thing about the parishioners of those Catholic churches whose priests have been molesting children. These people would have to judge each other by every crazy, angry, loudmouth person they associate with (and who doesn't have someone like that around?). But they don't really believe that. They are using Rev. Wright's supposed anti-patriotic speeches as their excuse to go after him, because attacking Obama's patriotism is easier and more acceptable than attacking his race directly. Guilty by association, Barack Obama is not a patriot like white Americans are, he's an angry black man who wants to change America, and white America is afraid of what that change might mean.

While Rev. Wright said some things that were a bit extreme even for my tastes, there are many things he was right about in regards to America's involvement in the affairs of other countries. There is plenty of evidence to back that up, and most educated people are aware of many of these events. But to talk about these events is the patriotic duty of every American, even though it is politically dangerous. The voices of dissent are what makes our country stronger, because they keep us on the right and moral path. From what I have heard and read of Rev. Wright's speeches, his focus is always on justice, and on what is right. But the false-patriots, the lapel-pin-wearing neo-fascists who have hijacked this country and our national dialog are using the guise of "patriotism" to attack Rev. Wright, and Barack Obama, but they are really attacking them because of their race. Obama says that racism is not endemic, and this is true, but there are far more blacks and Hispanics and Asians who vote for whites than the other way around.

It was an amazing speech, and Barack did a wonderful job making it inclusive, pointing out that racism is not a one-sided issue, limited only to whites, and the speech was not high-minded, but was brave in the sense that it went right to the heart of one of the darkest issues affecting America. Barack also delivered that speech as a true statesman. He gave us all a glimpse of his true leadership qualities, and he has shown tremendous courage, and a collective calmness while tackling one of the most heated issues plaguing this country. The breadth of his command of all facets of the race issue is astounding, and his unique perspective and experience give him a qualified authority to speak honestly about race, having grown up - at least part time - as a black man in a white middle-class family.

That this speech was about race was testament to his wisdom. Where most others in a similar position might have made the speech more about themselves, or would have been more defensive in their posturing, what made this speech so brilliant was that Barack made the speech about the issue of race in general, and how he and Rev. Wright are just players on that stage right there with the rest of us.

I think this "Rev. Wright issue" has gotten way out of control and was made into a much bigger deal than it deserved to be. I think it was politically driven, and the biggest players have been the sensationalist main stream media. But this issue, and those ratings-hungry media outlets that fanned the flames (and may have even set the fire) have brought to the surface something so important that has long been repressed. It had to be talked about at some point, and Barack Obama has shown true courage and leadership on this issue of race. But while he says that racism in America is not endemic, it remains to be seen how many white people are willing to have a black man as president.

I'm certainly willing.

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