Monday, September 14, 2009

Dealing with Race (Part II)

Three widely separated recent events underscore the insidious way in which racial tensions have risen in the United States to a point unequaled since Watts, Newark and Detroit exploded into deadly rioting.

One of them famously brought a white Cambridge policeman and a black Harvard professor to a beer-sipping truce talk at the White House. The sudsfest accomplished little except to bring a modicum of civility into the adversaries' agreement to disagree.

Another was the white South Carolina congressman's shouted insult, "You lie," on the floor of the House of Representatives during a joint session of Congress for a Presidential address on the most important issue facing the reppublic at this time.

The third was on a tennis court in Flushing, N.Y., when a white linesman made a call that triggered a profanity-laced rage by a black player at a critical point in a United States Open semifinal match.

There were different complexities surrounding each episode, but in each the first and most profound question was essentially the same.

Case No. 1: Would the white policeman have responded in the same manner if the Harvard professor breaking into his own home had been white?

Case No. 2: Would the white congressman have been treated with the same kid gloves, even hero worship in some quarters, if the President had been white?

Case No. 3: Would the tennis player have been treated so severely if she had been white?

I suspect that roughly 47% of Americans would answer those questions one way, and 53% would answer the opposite way. No, it is NOT coincidental that those were exactly the percentages of the votes cast last November for the Republican and Democratic candidates for president.

Rather than bringing us together in a new era of melting-pot American togetherness, the election of our first Black President has brought the dormant racism in the body politic to boil to the surface.

It is time for President Obama -- who has been a disappointment to me and many other supporters -- to dart into a phone booth, change clothes, and emerge as Candidate Obama. To punch out the lying villains with forthright, carefully engineered, moderately progressive policies on the economy, peace, justice, health care and civil liberties, and to lead us vigorously to their enactment.

And on race.

Mr. Obama should re-read the words he spoke to the nation on March 18, 2008, in the shadow of those icons of American democracy, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.

We have come far, he said, because "Americans in successive generations were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk - to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time."

Where are the risk takers now?

To the haters, the gun-and-sign-toters, he said: "we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren."

For that appeal to unity he got Rush Limbaugh pasting a Hitler mustache on his image, "birthers," tea-party nuts and Joe Wilson.

Candidate Obama pointed to his primary victories against a white opponent in states "with some of the whitest populations in the country" including Joe Wilson's South Carolina. He did not mention the deep racial divides revealed in any analysis of those votes.

Candidate Obama addressed the Christians on the other side of the divide:

"What is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well."

Our politics. It's not a game wherein our better angels often prevail.

Take off the gloves, Mr. President. Take off the gloves and put on the brass knuckles and wade into the bigots and ignoramuses and draw some blood.

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