Friday, June 6, 2008

The case for Webb

I've been reading all of the pros and cons of Obama picking Jim Webb as his Vice President, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. I don't say this because I believe that Webb can do a whole lot in securing the "white, hard-working" people of Appalachia for Obama, I don't think that's very realistic. Firstly, people simply do not vote for Vice Presidents, they simply accept them (what else could explain Dan Quayle?). More importantly, when racism is in your blood, it's hard to get out, and usually the only way it gets out of your blood is when you take your blood out. By that I mean is that you have to leave home and get exposed to different people and cultures that you've been never been exposed to from living in isolated rural areas. I'm not calling Appalachians racists in a derogatory sense, and perhaps racism isn't the right expression. Maybe it's something more along the lines of tribalism, something nearly all of us are plagued by. But the people in the Appalachia region by and large either do not like, nor do they trust, people of color.

Perhaps Appalachia is on my mind this morning because I just watched the premiere episode of the third season of 30 Days where Morgan Spurlock went back to his home state of West Virginia to spend 30 days in a coal mine. It made me think a lot about my maternal grandfather who was a coal miner in northern Alabama. It made me think of my mom's cousins who live in that area who I recently connected with again. It made me think of my sister and her family who are living there right now. These are all good people with their hearts in the right place, as long as the place in question is narrowly defined to not include people of color. With the exception of my sister, the rest of my family in northern Alabama are all racist. I wouldn't go so far as to say they are white supremacists in any way, but they just have little affection for people who aren't white. Even non-white pro ball players who they are big fans of are held in diminished regard, and are sometimes referred to by epithets such as "boy," and occasionally by the "n word." But this racism is not born from malice, so much as it comes from what they've been exposed to, or more likely what they've not been exposed to. The reason why my sister stands out as not being racist is because she got "her blood" out of there, and was able to experience much more of the world and was exposed to many different people from many different ethnicities, something my other family members have not had much of an opportunity to do.

I'm thinking more and more that the reason Jim Webb might be an ideal pick for Obama's VP is because of what they have both said on the topics of race. From Obama's amazing speech in Pennsylvania:

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.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze - a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns - this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

And Jim Webb said recently:

Black America and Scots-Irish America are like tortured siblings. They both have long history and they both missed the boat when it came to the larger benefits that a lot of other people were able to receive. There's a saying in the Appalachian mountains that they say to one another, and it's, "if you're poor and white, you're out of sight." ...

If this cultural group could get at the same table as black America you could rechange [sic] populist American politics. Because they have so much in common in terms of what they need out of government.

With Webb as Obama's VP, that would be a huge symbol of these two ethnic groups coming together at the same table. Would it erase over a century of bad blood? No way. Would it make the people of Appalachia more open to non-whites? Not most of them.

What it would do is legitimize the concept of the shared suffering of these two groups, and move the discussion of the racial divide in America forward in a way that nothing else can.

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