Friday, July 19, 2013

A Moment of Candor and An Opportunity for Reflection

Friday afternoon, Barack Obama took time to address the nation not as the President but as an African American and it was one of the more heartfelt and emotional moments of his presidency. Speaking primarily off the cuff and without a prepared speech, the President spoke from his heart. For a man who has carefully chosen his words and who has been deliberately guarded, sometimes to a fault, the candor with which he spoke was refreshing to say the least.

When he said that Trayvon Martin could've been him 35 years ago, it was the closest we have ever seen this African-American President come to openly acknowledging his race. He has so much wanted to be like his child-hood hero, Lincoln, but the simple and undeniable truth is that he could never be Lincoln and I suspect, deep down, he always knew that. He was and is the Jackie Robinson of politics, for better or worse. The first of his race to reach the big leagues and that reality has weighed heavily on him. And for a brief moment, Barack Obama let his hair down.

He neither lost his composure nor dipped into the pity pot a lesser man might have. In that respect, at least, he was Lincoln, insofar as he refused to bow to his lesser angels. But he did read out, in his own way, a nation that still, despite the gains it has made over the last few decades, has a long way to go to put the issue of race to bed. 

"There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.

"And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

"And you know, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear."

There is not one white person alive, myself included, who can even remotely begin to understand what Barack Obama was saying Friday afternoon; who can appreciate what it must be like to be profiled as suspicious for simply walking down the street and doing absolutely nothing wrong. Not once did my parents ever have to caution me about how I was dressed or worry about whether I would be stopped either by a cop or someone else in authority simply because of who I was or how I looked. That cross was never theirs to bear.  Indeed, none of us have ever known that kind of institutionalized racism.

So when the President says that he could well have been Trayvon Martin 35 years ago, he isn't exaggerating; he is simply being honest. In fact, it wasn't that long ago that a black man who openly expressed a desire to one day become president could have found himself on the wrong end of a rope for such an expression.

Those who naively believe that we have somehow arrived as a nation and have come to peace with our past, just aren't paying attention. It's easy to focus on the South - Florida, in particular, seems to have gone completely off the rails - but the truth is racism exists everywhere. There is virtually no area of the country immune from it.  35 years ago, I was a teenager living in a very white neighborhood on the south shore of Long Island. If you were black in that community you were obviously lost. I probably went to high school with a dozen kids just like George Zimmerman.

There are those who will say that racism isn't as overt as it once was, and they are right. For instance, when Paula Deen used the "N" word during an interview, it cost her her job.  A few years back, Don Imus was fired for using racially insensitive words to describe the Rutgers' women's basketball team on his morning radio show. Clearly there are lines the nation has drawn that, when crossed, have consequences.

But those lines are superficial at best. The fact is the nation is more polarized now than it was even twenty years ago. You can cut the racial tension in this country with a knife, that's how bad it has gotten. Trayvon Martin felt that tension and paid dearly for it. He was not the first and he will certainly not be the last.

Like most progressives, I thought the election of Barack Obama would allow for a healing process to begin. America, I thought, had finally turned a page. Nothing could've been further from the truth. Far from healing the wounds of our past, Obama's presence seemed to exacerbate them. The country may have seen fit to elect a black man, but it was hardly ready for that same black man to exercise his authority. Witness the uproar over the images of Obama with his feet up on the Oval Office desk or the press conference where he had a Marine hold an umbrella for him. Never mind that other presidents before him had done the same thing, the fact that it was Obama touched a raw nerve within a certain segment of the population.

There have always been two sets of rules in this country: one for whites and one for everyone else. It has been that way from the beginning, even before the Republic was founded. The gains that African Americans made first during the Reconstruction period and later during the 1960s, while significant, never dealt with the underlying systemic problems that, to this day, continue to persist. 

Marx addressed some of these issues from a sociological perspective in his 19th century critique of capitalism, Das Kapital. The continuing economic crises that are endemic to capitalism pit competing groups of workers against each other for the limited available resources. For centuries, whites enjoyed a unique and lofty status in society at the expense of their black counterparts who were enslaved and then, at the conclusion of the Civil War, denied their legal rights.  As blacks began to gain ground, economically speaking, they began to compete with whites for jobs and resources that hitherto belonged exclusively to whites. The backlash was both predictable and inevitable. What we are witnessing today is the culmination of a decades-long slow burn within a segment of white America that not only resents the loss of their privileged status, but has taken it upon itself to do everything possible to turn back the clock.

Of course that's physically impossible. No matter how hard they try, the nation is NOT going back to the days of Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best. The genie isn't going back into her bottle. That's the good news. The bad news is that, for the foreseeable future, we are going to have more tragedies like what happened in Florida and more innocent blood will be spilled. Frankly, I don't see any way around it. Black America isn't going backward and that part of white America that can't deal with an ascending black America seems determined to "stand its ground."

The simple truth is that until we address the 800 pound gorilla that has been living among us for centuries and sit down and have an adult conversation about race and economics, we will never move beyond this sad chapter in our history. We will still be fighting the same Civil War we assumed was decided over a century ago.

I appreciate the fact the the President is optimistic about the future and he's right about one thing: our kids are better than us. I'm just not as optimistic as he is. The problem with kids is that they grow up to become adults. And invariably they inherit their parents' worst fears and prejudices. That's when all hell breaks loose. Just last week, a 29 year old adult was acquitted of killing a 17 year old teenager.

I wonder what a 17 year old George Zimmerman would've done that night. Probably would've stolen Trayvon Martin's skittles. 


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