By Judith Gayle | Political Waves
SOMETHING MYSTIFYING happened this week, broadcast live on television across the nation. Someone spoke to us as if we were adults who had the ability to ponder our deepest sociopolitical divides and plumb the depths of our hearts to find our vast commonalities. He asked us to take responsibility for our own emotional and intellectual process as regards the racial fear and bias that is institutionalized in the United States -- accepted, ignored and unexplored. Barack Obama opened a conversation that has been largely tabled since Lincoln wore a stove-pipe hat.
While the speech
itself had the properties of an awakening, the response to it should be carefully examined as a litmus paper of our ability...or perhaps our willingness...to take in such a profound topic and deal with it rationally. Rush Limbaugh, bastion of conservative hate radio, crowed that Obama has finally resolved the question among his own about whether he is black enough to represent them and that his entire campaign will now be about his race. The 24/7 news media immediately dissected his comments to see how it would play with which constituencies and how it might further his candidacy, handicapping the race. The op/ed columns give an admiring nod to his unexpected courage and nuance in addressing this complex topic, while warning that he had not 'healed' the wounds he suffered by the nations exposure to the commentary of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr.
His own supporters testified that they'd never been so proud of a candidate, and the liberal blogosphere at large resonated with lump-in-the-throat emotion that someone had finally and thoughtfully addressed this third rail of American politics -- or perhaps more rightly, American dysfunction.
When the Founding Fathers put together this Republic, neither people of color nor women were represented as full citizens. If we look at that initial moment as a sociopolitical contract drawn and established, then what is lacking in this experiment in 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' is the complete spectrum, by more than half, of its inheritors. That was the default position of the British colonies, and the imprint of the social realities that produced this nation. In both cases -- gender and race -- that context was primarily a financial context that served the patriarchy of the time: both women and slaves were considered a form of 'property'. It is truly ironic, today, that both a woman and a man of color are competing to lead the country into the 21st century when neither have fully realized their inheritance in the promises of the American Constitution.
This nation is a work in progress. Within that original contract written by the Founders was the possibility, down the road, for an end to classism. As landowners, that may not have been their primary intent, but their highest visions for extraordinary governance opened the way in theory. Women and blacks were ignored on the whole, creating them by default as second class citizens but not legislated against, per se (at least at first). The question of slavery polarized the colonies and the topic was tiptoed around, tabled for later -- 'later' turned into the Civil War and delivered a wound that is still sensitive, gone quiet and deep within our national psyche. Problems of race and equality have plagued us since; but, in truth, they've driven us from the dawn of time.
My ancestor, John Howland, arrived on these shores in 1620 as an indentured servant on the Mayflower. He was in service to John Carver, a wealthy gent who helped author the Mayflower Compact and served as the first governor of Plymouth. When Carver perished in those initial harsh years of deprivation, grieving for the apparent suicide of his wife in the first months on American soil, Gramps (13 generations past) benefited by 'inheriting' his freedom along with a bit of wealth and power, taking a modest position in the colony as a potential 'mover and shaker'. By that time, able-bodied men were at a premium and issues of class were pragmatically set aside.
That would not have happened, no matter how dire the circumstance, if Gramps had been a man of color -- the Puritans were Biblical, and the prejudice against blacks goes back to the story of Noah, when the descendants of one of his sons, Ham, was cursed
to 'turn dark' for his impropriety. We were reminded of that "moldy oldie" when Republican candidate Mitt Romney attempted to distance the cult status of his Mormonism from mainstream Christianity some months ago; black men (of "Hamitic lineage") have only been allowed into the Mormon priesthood
since 1976 (and women, never.) It seems we've been at this process of racial and sexual division for a long, long time.
Racism and sexism is ancient, systemic and global -- in this new signature of Plutonian shakeup in Capricorn, it's a system that we are being called upon to examine, and in our typically messy and clumsy lurch toward exposing darkness and upending ignorance, resolve in some fashion. That's quite a project, when you think of the centuries of resentment built upon each other like a mountain of strata, a monument to exploitation compounded by notions of superiority and separation. Obama addressed race by making apparent the issues of both sides of the racial divide, something he is able to do not as a descendant of American slavery but of a Kenyan and a white mother, yet married to a daughter of slaves -- someone with a foot in both worlds. Political commentator, Charles Kaiser
, put it this way: "It turns out that a candidate for president with a white mother and a black father has a capacity that no one else has ever had before: He can articulate an equal understanding of black racism and white racism—and that makes it possible for him to condemn both of them with equal passion."
I have been truly saddened over the last weeks as the Democratic race has unearthed the sleeping giant of racism -- but I suppose it was inevitable that it be summoned into sight. Certainly if Obama is the anointed one, the Republicans will not fail to exploit race, and fear of all it represents, to further their own candidate. It is tempting to assign this turn of events to the conservative party since they fly the covert banner of racial superiority, much as they fly the Confederate flag in the South, with generational ease and self-justification. But the roots of this discussion began (for political expediency) within the liberal party, exposing our oh-so-human vulnerability to ancient bias against 'strangers' -- and make no mistake, black and white are strangers to one another in too many households across this nation.
What divides us is not so overtly skin color but a long history of resentment and grievance that has not been addressed in any adult fashion. Resentment is poisonous -- we don't think of resentment as so dark an emotion as hatred, but it is the kind of psychosocial embitterment that collects itself into an atom bomb of anger that explodes into statements and confrontations that are often disproportionate to the moment. Such events seldom heal by themselves, they ooze and bleed and need to be cauterized by the kind of social justice we seldom see. Consider the recent story of high school racism in Jena, Louisiana
using a noose as an incendiary threat to black students, resulting in violence and justice that appears to have been lenient to those who instigated what smacks of a 'hate crime', or at least its provocation -- similar incidents followed quickly in Tennessee and Kentucky.
What separates a white family from their black neighbors is the inability to relate to all that's gone before -- a lack of education, understanding and compassion that hides behind the face of "differences" and a long list of sensitivities, like landmines waiting to explode -- a breach that can be crossed only if we are willing to let go of expectations and learned bias. Mr. Obama's pastor comes from a tradition, similar to Martin Luther King's (although critics point to the more militant Malcolm X) unafraid to speak those truths from his pulpit, and what may sound anti-American to those who have not experienced the black perspective ring as harsh (and to some, unacceptable) truth to those who have. In the white community, unacknowledged and misunderstood fear of recompense for decades of inequality drives a narrative that keeps African-Americans in a weakened political and economic position, with little attempt to cross that divide. Unless we can wrap our arms around the difficult truth of our history in an adult fashion and meet, person to person, we will be unable to heal any part of our sorrowful past and move ahead into the future. This whole question of race in America will require myth-busting of the highest order and I have no illusions that it will be our proudest moment; Obama's speech was an extraordinarily proud moment in my liberal opinion, but it was just the preamble to a deeply resonant conversation that has been purposefully ignored since the Constitution was struck. Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson furthered the cause of equality in magnificent ways but equality, as we have seen, cannot be legislated -- it must be embraced.
What this racial dialogue portends for Obama's candidacy, no one knows. Racism is not only an emotional issue; it remains a financial one as the string-pullers around the globe understand. As the ruling class enjoys more wealth and power than it has since the turn of the last century, and with the middle class narrowing due to unfettered corporatism, one would think that those being left behind would take hands to try to stabilize their common, and sinking, economic boat. But what must be overcome first is the dark, irrational emotions that the politically astute have played, one against the another, since time began. When we look into the face of Barack Obama, we're looking into a mirror -- and only our heart can tell us what we see.
Perhaps there must be an epiphany of some sort, an acknowledgment that allows both women and African-Americans to truly stand in the freedom of opportunity that this nation offers without dragging the invisible chains of servitude and second-class citizenship behind them. Some see a Hillary Clinton presidency as the valuation of women they long for, but in my opinion such an acknowledgement can't rest on one person's shoulders or achievements -- we need something more substantial in gender recognition. And perhaps if the nation apologized to its black citizens, collectively, for slavery much as the Australian government
recently apologized to its Aboriginal indigenous people for their treatment at the hands of generations of governance, soothing oil could be poured on historic wounds.
, when asked about the difference between his experience in South Africa and ours, had this to say: "In South Africa, we knew they intended to clobber us, and you had to deal with that and find ways to defend yourself and to survive. Here, there seemed to be a kind of conspiracy. And I have come to the conclusion that it seems to me that you are not going to be able to have normal relationships until you come to terms with the legacy of slavery and what happened to Native Americans. There seems to be a pain that is sitting in the pit of the tummy of almost all African Americans and Native Americans."
That constant pain in the tummy of our black and indigenous neighbors, and the unrecognized guilt of the white community that is directed out as fear and hostility, poisons the waters of our ability to coexist on equal footing -- and unless there is recognition that the nation built its wealth on the victimization of an entire race of people who were not invited here but captured and dragged into servitude (and an apology to our American Indian brothers and sisters for taking what was not ours and pushing them to the edge of the herd, as well) the wound on the body of the whole can never heal. But that can't happen if we polarize our neighborhoods along racial fault lines, if we pretend that there's nothing wrong with a system that creates two disparate societies within any single city across the nation and make no attempt to bridge that gap. It can't happen as long as overt racism is still approved in rural Southern areas, tolerated in the Midwest, ghettoized in urban cities and sustained in pockets of stubborn resistance across the country.
What can we say about the reluctant South -- Florida, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana -- which chose not to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment
giving women the vote in 1919 when it first appeared nationally, and only signed on to give women this essential freedom in the late 60's and early 70's? Mississippi did not embrace the amendment until 1984. On both race and gender, they are not a 'willing' demographic. While the South continues to make progress on these issues, for some the Civil War is not forgotten even if the way of life they valued was wrenched away from them long ago -- they have a pain in their tummy as well, driven by historical echoes as potent as those that drive the African-American community. Change may only happen in those who still long for a return of Confederate values as they are absorbed by the whole.
Obama has asked us, again and again, to take the high road so that we can welcome change into our political system -- and now he's asked us to do the same with our ancient racial wounds and fears. He not only refused to condemn the emotional experience of his pastor but asked us as a nation to understand and rise above it, not only pointed out our fears and vulnerabilities but asked us to put them into larger perspective. It remains to be seen if we are ready for such an adult experiment, but whether we vote for this man or not, he will go down in history as a sincere agent of change, lifting our conversation about race into the light of day with unaccustomed intelligence and belief that, yes, we CAN come to new conclusions.
The racism and sexism which we're reviewing in this election season can only be overcome if we are willing to no longer use them as bludgeons against one another. Each asks us to search our intellect and experience, scour our hearts and emotions, for what is 'old' and no longer viable to the evolution we seek. Obama has asked us to behave like grownup's and face our past in order to move into our future -- simply, he's asked us to acknowledge our history of wrongs and forgive one another. Perhaps we will be able to take a leap on this issue, travel the high road -- or perhaps we will crack that mirror with a deluge of dark emotion that will overfill our glass as the dregs of our innate prejudice float to the top. But one way or another, 'new' is pouring into 'old', and we WILL face this now.
Until we can take responsibility for all that has gone before, we cannot create that 'new thing' that awaits us and emerge as one nation, eager to hold hands as we move forward -- men and women, colorblind and equally appreciated for our talents and abilities, determined to listen to the Higher Angels that hold our blueprint for the future.