Race Is Not A Black And White Issue

This campaign season isn't the last time race is going to be an issue in America. But the next conversations we have may come from a completely unexpected direction.
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Barack Obama gave a speech on race yesterday. He pretty much had to, as the media pressure on him to do so was becoming overwhelming to his campaign. The media had already successfully pressured one candidate (Mitt Romney) to give a speech on his religion (since he is Mormon), and after the comments of his pastor were plastered on the news for days, Obama needed to address the issue. Which, from almost all accounts, he successfully did. But even if he had given the Sermon on the Mount on the issue, and even if every black and white American immediately got over their racial antipathy toward each other tomorrow, this should be seen as only the opening conversation in what could be a long discussion.

To his credit, Barack Obama did deliver a great speech on how he walks the minefield of race and racial politics in American life. As Jon Stewart said, he talked to Americans as if "they were adults." That alone is pretty rare in any campaign. But whether this speech is going to change anyone's mind in the voting booth remains to be seen. My guess is that Obama will gain a certain degree of respect from a wide swath of the American public on the issue, but it probably won't change many minds, one way or the other. Because how we see race in this country is pretty deeply ingrained. Which is the whole problem Barack's speech addressed, from the black and white side of the coin.

But it's not just a two-sided coin. I live in California now, but I grew up in the suburbs of the East Coast. This partially defines who I am, because of the experiences I have lived through in both places. And I am (just to be clear) a white guy, which also partially defines me. I have friends here in California, though, who have a different set of experiences with regards to race and racial identity.

A good friend of mine was born in California, grew up in the suburbs of a farm city in the Central Valley, and moved to the coast as an adult. She has traveled all over this country and the world, but she's never lived anywhere but here. She is extremely intelligent and very politically savvy. I bounce ideas off her all the time, since her reactions are original and insightful. I should also mention she's a Hillary Clinton supporter, but she's not anti-Obama or anything, she just likes Hillary better as a candidate.

But her experiences with race are just not the same as mine. She has never really seen or understood the black/white racial divide in this country. "Race problems" in her high school meant white/Hispanic, or white/Asian. That's the "racial" context she lives with, since that is what shaped her experiences. So while she's definitely not a stupid person, she is completely ignorant about black/white politics (stupidity, remember, is inherent and can't be changed; ignorance just means you haven't learned about something, and can be cured).

Here's an example of her ignorance: when driving in Mississippi (she was traveling for her work), she was given a speeding ticket. She's not used to dealing with the police, as she hasn't gotten many tickets in her life. And she was definitely not used to dealing with police outside of California. She disagreed with the policeman over whether she deserved a ticket or not (to put it mildly). At the end of a more-and-more heated exchange of words, she told the cop he was "racially profiling" her. The only problem is, she's white and the cop was a black man. Not exactly a classic case of "racial profiling" in the Deep South.

I say she is ignorant in no disrespect to her. When I moved to California, I was just as ignorant about Hispanic culture, and the racial and ethnic problems they faced. I didn't even know what a burrito was, if truth be told. Racial slurs against Mexicans had to actually be explained to me, because I just didn't understand what was being said or implied. I never took Spanish in school, so I mispronounced street names and town names with abandon, much to the amusement of California natives within earshot (I found out La Jolla, for instance, isn't pronounced "La Jolla" but "La Hoya").

But back to my friend. We were talking about Barack Obama when he first became a "frontrunner," and I wondered whether the country was ready for a black president. Her response shows her ignorance: "But why would that be an issue? He is half-white, after all." This is a woman who just didn't "get it," and was honestly and completely clueless. Rather than tell her to go look up something like "octoroon" in the dictionary (or to Google "one drop of black blood") I tried to explain to her how, to a lot of Americans, there really isn't a sliding scale of "blackness" -- you're either one or the other. Period.

But this was just after the mainstream media had just been asking "Is Obama black enough?" This question, interestingly enough, was mostly asked by white media folks. Black people being asked the question (to their credit) were almost universally astonished that they were even being asked such a stupid question. But the real question -- the question the media couldn't ask -- was (and remains): "Is Obama white enough?" In other words, was this mulatto (to dredge up another forgotten term) going to be acceptible enough to white voters?

But the media couldn't come out and ask that. Because you can ask some things, and other things you cannot. You can have a discussion on Barack's "blackness" but not on his "whiteness," for the same reason you can have a black-only fraternity or campus group, but you cannot have the same for whites-only. And while minstrel shows and "Little Black Sambo" are out, somehow the Cleveland Indians' "Chief Wahoo" remains acceptable (this one still confuses me, personally).

This is because America has progressed in our discussion on race, but only somewhat. And the words spoken in this discussion must negotiate a semantic minefield, which must be carefully traversed by anyone engaging in such a conversation about race. To talk about race, you have to know what not to say, in other words.

Barack Obama was right to point out that America isn't static, and has indeed been changing for the better. In my lifetime, blatantly racist statements have all but disappeared from "polite conversation." Such comments went from being acceptable (especially in the South), to completely unacceptable in public. However, this didn't happen overnight. When whites realized they had to change how they spoke of race, "code words" evolved. At first these were crude, and obvious (talking about "states' rights" for instance). But over time, they have become more subtle, so subtle in fact that people say things at times meaning absolutely no offence, and are still excoriated for "racist" statements.

The best recent example of this was Joe Biden's comment that he thought Barack Obama was "articulate." If you listened to the actual Biden quote, he was quite obviously just a clueless white guy praising Obama as a politician. I personally didn't think it was racial in any way -- until it was explained to me that "articulate" had a history of being a racial code word. "Why should white people be so astonished that a black man can form an English sentence?" sums up the reason why this could be considered offensive to blacks. Also, Biden did use the word "clean" as well, which certainly didn't help. But I still believe Biden was honestly trying to size up a rival and admit that Obama was a formidable candidate -- in other words, he meant everything he said in a positive way.

But that's the problem with code words. It's all about the speaker's intent -- in other words, what that person believes in their mind when saying them. And this is impossible to prove or disprove, making it a subjective thing as to whether it's offensive or not. This is why there was such an enormous debate over Hillary Clinton's comments on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Baines Johnson, and over the various things Bill Clinton said in South Carolina. Because what could be an innocuous statement of historical fact can also be interpreted as having racial overtones. It's all in the ear of the listener sometimes, when it comes to such statements. It mostly boils down to: do you believe this person would say such a thing to stoke the racial divide, or do you believe they were unaware of how their speech would be interpreted?

One of the most impressive things in Barack's speech was that he admitted something which many people do not want to face: that, when in "mixed company," some people talk differently than when they are around "their own kind." Both white and black. This is something that is so obviously true that nobody needs it explained, but it's also true that it is a very-rarely mentioned fact.

Barack Obama is uniquely poised to begin this conversation with America. He's not only black, he's also white. He has a more multi-cultural background than anyone who has ever run for president before. He spent some formative years of his life living outside this country, with a stepfather who was neither black nor white, which makes him unique in a different way. He also spent time in Hawai'i, where race is a complex question -- due to Hawai'i having a more varied mix of race (and more casual mixing of those races) than on the mainland.

This history will likely help Obama if he does indeed become president. Because the future of our country is heading away from seeing race as a black/white, one-dimensional scale. This is something much of America (the East Coast in particular) has yet to really wake up to. The black/white racial divide has such a long history, and is so visible in everyday life, that when you speak of "race" or "racism" on the East Coast, the entire scope of the conversation is mostly on such a black/white scale.

But there are other racial divisions in this country, and they're becoming an issue in places that have never had to deal with them before. On the whole, American history has not shown us at our best when we are forced to confront new issues of "us" versus "them." This history is not merely racial, although the racial parts are easier to spot. But whenever a wave of "new" immigrants comes to this country, our initial reaction is, sadly, almost always the same. The Irish immigrants were greeted with signs such as "Help Wanted; No Irish Need Apply." Italians faced discrimination too, as well as Eastern Europeans, Jews, and plenty of other East Coast immigrant groups. On the West Coast, some of the most racist anti-immigration laws in our history were passed to limit the Chinese coming in (even though they built our railroads). The initial anti-immigration hysteria against Mexicans gave us the Drug War (research how marijuana became illegal if you don't believe this). Native Americans all over America got a mighty short end of the stick for many centuries as well, some of which still continues to this day (not all tribes have casinos).

It was interesting to hear Obama speak of white resentment of affirmative action; about white families with immigrant roots who felt that nobody helped them get where they were, so why should they help blacks? Because a lot of those families did indeed face bigotry and discrimination in a large way. But nothing trumps the fact that black people in America were owned at one time. Slavery is so evil that it really does deserve special recognition. And the history of civil rights in this country is so enormous a battle of right versus wrong that it cannot be diminished by pointing out lesser problems other groups have faced.

The problem is, as Obama pointed out, that there are plenty of Americans (black and white) who personally remember what life was like before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. There are plenty of people alive today who were open racists back then, before it became unfashionable. The scars are deep.

But maybe, just maybe, they have healed more than they've remained. Maybe not. Affirmative Action, for instance, should not be seen as a permanent thing in American society. How could it be? It's purpose is to level the playing field, but at some date in the future when the field has been leveled, it will by definition become no longer necessary. This shouldn't be a shocking or controversial statement, but it still is to a lot of people, most of them Democrats.

What would shock much of America is how this is working out today in California. The most prestigious state schools here have to limit the number of Asians they admit, so that they can give a step up to white applicants as well as Hispanic and black applicants. Otherwise, Berkeley would be Asian-only. California will be the first state to have no majority racial makeup -- whites will be just "the biggest minority" as they slip below half of the population. There are blacks here, as well as Asians (which covers a lot -- Japanese, Chinese, South Koreans, Vietnamese, Indians, Pacific Islanders -- each with their own individual culture), Hispanics (once again, comprised of Mexicans, Central Americans, South Americans, and various others), Native Americans, and pretty much everything else you can think of. It's not a one-dimensional white/black issue, it is multifaceted and complex.

This is America's future, too. And when it comes to talking about racism, it's soon going to be a lot more complicated than the old black/white way of seeing things. So far, we haven't done a great job of even starting this conversation (see: recent hysteria over immigration). But it's becoming too big for even the East Coast to ignore. Because a few years ago something happened which most Americans still haven't even realized yet: blacks were surpassed as the largest minority in America by Hispanics. Blacks are now only the second biggest minority in this country. Many people are ignorant of this fact, but as time goes by they're going to be made more and more aware of it. Hispanics are beginning not only to find their political voice, but to become a stronger and stronger political force to be reckoned with.

So while Obama's speech was indeed impressive, for attempting to bridge the black/white divide in American thought, and while I hope it sparks a much more intelligent debate (avoiding, as always, the minefield of certain language), even if he succeeds in advancing America one step closer to putting such conversations behind us, this campaign season isn't the last time race is going to be an issue in America. But the next conversations we have may come from a completely unexpected direction.

My California friend admits she may be completely ignorant about the black/white racial divide. But she will not be ignorant of this upcoming discussion, while a lot of people who focus solely on black and white will need to get past their ignorance of the issue -- no matter which side of the debate they ultimately find themselves on.

Barack Obama has taken a big step on the road to talking about and solving these lingering racial problems, and he should be commended for that. But it's going to be a long road until we get there, which is something everyone should realize.

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com

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