My son Duncan, who is fourteen, is struggling a bit at his expensive school. I suspect he's smarter than all of us, but at this particular 'great' school you're not allowed to play football if you can't sustain a high average. The thought of him having to give up football, and fill that time with added hours of academic busy work, is too awful to contemplate. So, weeks ago I put my plan to work for the Obama campaign full-time in a battleground state on hold, so I could be around in case he needed me. The particular limbo of that decision has been, like these tumultuous times, interesting.
Like Democrats before him, Candidate Obama only ever came to LA to get cash. So, there's been little for me to do as a campaign volunteer except call voters in other states, which I enjoy almost as much as pouring hot sauce in my eyes. I was looking forward to working as a Deputy Campaign Organizer in, say, Colorado, partly because I would be able to tell other people to make calls. But with the election mere weeks away, and my son occupied eight hours a day at school, I was out of excuses. So I dragged myself into the Santa Monica field office on Wilshire Boulevard, where I was thrilled to find that enough phone bankers in one place create huge amounts of work for people like me. Because, via laptop, the details of every call must be logged into the campaign's vast database.
The job was simple; scan pages of recently called voters and record what happened on each call: No Answer, Wrong Number, Leaning(Red or Blue), Will Vote, Won't Vote, and the highly prized, Voted. On my first day we made twelve thousand calls. On the second even more, and on the third, we made four thousand calls in the first two hours, maybe twenty thousand by nightfall. I say "we" because without us Data Drones, those calls would have been neither well targeted, nor informative. It was us who insured every round of calls was honed by the previous one. We scanned and revised the lists so that i time would not be wasted on wrong numbers, non-voters, McCain supporters, and the insane.
I made lists of memorable names. New Mexico yielded neighbors, Peggy Smeller and Jesse Stalker, and the lyrical, gender-ambiguous Bilevia Willie, who lives fairly close to a man named Phung Dang. Meanwhile, somewhere in North Carolina a brave gentleman, name of Wiley Bumpass, makes his home.
By Monday, November 3rd Data Entry had changed from scalpel, to battering ram. The only elimination required was either Wrong Number or McCain Voter. Everyone else warranted one more call. Even if they'd voted, it was time to call them back and assign tasks like driving someone to the polls, or canvassing, or making more calls.
We tore through page after page, eliminating the wrong numbers and the McCain voters. In the margins we read notes like, "If they get one more call, they'll vote for Nader!", but we didn't care. For every one of those, there seemed to be dozens who welcomed the requests. As I write this, it is 6pm PST on Election Day. I hope to go over to the office soon, for a last visit. Yesterday was the final day of Data Entry. Today, it's just thousands more phone calls. I might finally be drawn into that fray.
My services were not required. Nor would I have made it in time for the miraculous news; Barack Obama will be our next President! Duncan and I were in the car on the way home from football, listening to the returns on the radio. NPR had already called Pennsylvania for Obama, and then suddenly as we sped through tail-lit darkness on the 405 South, they announced that he'd won Ohio. "It's OVER!!" I yelled, laughing and pounding the wheel. "Dunny!" I said, "Our next President is going to be one of YOU PEOPLE!!"
It's a privilege of being in a mixed race family, that we get to make coarse, tasteless, and degrading references to each other's race, with impunity.
My son and Barack Obama are almost exactly the same color, except unlike Barack's family, it is I, the father, who is white, and Alfre, his mom, who is black. In my case, the whiteness is what a black comedian might call "terminal". I grew up in Westchester County, New York, from whence my father took the train in to Manhattan, to be a Wall Street Banker (back when that was distinguished, even admirable work.) When I was born his career was giving way to uneasy retirement. John Cheever's shadowy stories of big hissing lawns and alcoholism are set in my toddling ground.
On the other hand, my wife's Grandparents were sharecroppers in Oklahoma and Texas. Both her parents grew up poor and segregated. We've been married 25 years, and in the last decade have wept at both of their funerals. Their immediate acceptance and affection for me, from the moment I arrived on their doorstep, is proof of the every-day-all-the-time power of love. My wife Alfre looks more African than American, yet according to family history her great grandfather was a white Irishman who married a half black, half Native American woman, with whom he ran for land in the Oklahoma territory. This fact used not to be talked about. But Alfre's generation heard the whispers, and were eager to know more.
My family's whispered truths also involve race and the mitigation of shame. A branch of our tree was, for generations, in the cotton business. It has always been carefully pointed out that 'we' were never slave-owners, but wholesalers and manufacturers of cotton goods; a thin, but tightly held distinction. I wonder. Were we always at least once removed from that great sin? It is a conceit that I have stopped clinging to, because it does me no good at all, as the solitary white person in my household, to argue that my ancestors were always nice to black people. Too often the reply from my wife and kids is, "then why aren't you!?" In fact, by necessity, I have begun to theorize that I too, may be part black. Which doesn't have a lot of traction with the wife and kids, either.
My son's usual swipe at me is three pronged, I'm old, I'm slow, and I'm white. True, but when I reply that he's only half black, and actually I've been 'black' a lot longer than him, he just rolls his eyes and says with a smirk, "Nice try, dad."
And now, insult to injury, he and his sister are going to be utterly full of themselves since they are "just like" the next President, and for the first time in history, I'm not! The best retort I've managed so far is, "Yeah, well, he wouldn't be that way without a white.... Mom!"
"Nice try, dad."
It would of course have been more difficult for a family like ours, if at the time our kids were born we were stripped of our lucrative West Side careers and set down in blue-collar Compton, or East LA. It would have been tougher, and God knows racism will continue to plague our country, wherever there is poverty, either of spirit or of pocket. But Obama's emergence has brought a new energy to the much ballyhooed but seldom actually engaged in Conversation about Race. As a black man at the Magic Johnson Starbucks on Crenshaw pointed out with startling insight, during an NPR interview a few days ago, "Obama's as white as he is black, people forget that. So that makes him an American first. Plus, he's a true African American. It is fateful that he's come along just at this time."
My son may never feel, in a visceral way, that his feet are on new ground as of today. The bankrupt argument that somehow his color can be 'factored in' to his academic struggles has faded overnight, further into the oblivion it has long deserved.
I suppose the proof of my children's lack of anxiety over their racial identity, is the amused, slightly puzzled way they watched their parents bawling our eyes out in front of Barack Obama's victory speech last night. They were happy, even inspired, but they did not, in their guts, find it 'amazing', or 'huge', or 'thrilling'. It was a bit like trying to get them excited about Jimi Hendrix, or Steve McQueen. They were nice about it, but for them it seemed like yet another grown-up thing that they understand, but don't really 'get'. For them, Obama's ascendancy simply makes sense. He was the better candidate. He raised more money, had a better plan, thought better on his feet, and was better organized. Of course he won. He was just better than the old white guy.
My life is going to be hell, now. Thanks a lot, Mr. President.