Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Ugly America

The Washington Post has a sobering article on the state of ingrained racism in America and how it manifests itself in the presidential race.

For all the hope and excitement Obama’s candidacy is generating, some of his field workers, phone-bank volunteers and campaign surrogates are encountering a raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed — and unreported — this election season. Doors have been slammed in their faces. They’ve been called racially derogatory names (including the white volunteers). And they’ve endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping from people who can’t fathom that the senator from Illinois could become the first African American president.

The contrast between the large, adoring crowds Obama draws at public events and the gritty street-level work to win votes is stark. The candidate is largely insulated from the mean-spiritedness that some of his foot soldiers deal with away from the media spotlight.

Victoria Switzer, a retired social studies teacher, was on phone-bank duty one night during the Pennsylvania primary campaign. One night was all she could take: “It wasn’t pretty.” She made 60 calls to prospective voters in Susquehanna County, her home county, which is 98 percent white. The responses were dispiriting. One caller, Switzer remembers, said he couldn’t possibly vote for Obama and concluded: “Hang that darky from a tree!”

It’s been an unspoken axiom that racism and irrational hatred would be a part of this campaign since the moment Mr. Obama came on the scene in 2004, and it’s been a given that Mr. Obama would not be accepted among certain constituencies regardless of his stands on the issues. The question isn’t whether or not it’s there; we know it is. The question becomes how do we deal with it?

Mr. Obama’s speech about race in March went a long way to at least open the door to the discussion, and there’s little doubt that the Republicans will do everything they possibly can to minimize the issue by saying that racism is just an excuse the Democrats are using to demonize citizens with real concerns about Mr. Obama and at the same time sowing the seeds of misinformation — “he’s a radical Muslim who won’t salute the flag and isn’t really American” — through their “independent” operatives. But regardless of the campaign tactics, it is an undeniable fact that race is a core element in America that transcends the politics of the moment and defines us historically and for the future. If Barack Obama becomes the next president he will face challenges no other occupant of that office has ever faced solely on the fact of his skin color. His life will be in danger, if it isn’t already, for the rest of his life because as sure as God made little green apples, there is someone out there with a rifle who believes it is his solemn patriotic duty as a white Christian to shoot the first black man to become president. And it’s not just Mr. Obama; it’s one of the reasons Colin Powell decided not to run in 1996.

If he’s elected, Barack Obama will have to prove himself equal to the task based on higher standards than the previous forty-three occupants, and certainly he will be under the microscope of the opposition, who will, in a head-spinning change of course compared to the current occupant, demand nothing less than Jeffersonian perfection in everything he does. He will be measured not as a man, but as a black man, and any failing will be seen by the bigots and the small-minded as a reflection on every other African-American who has the temerity to challenge the pasty patriarchy.

If there was a simple way to deal with it, we would have dispatched the issue a long time ago. But we know that it is part of our human nature to fear the unknown and the different, and old habits and ingrained lessons die hard. The people who have fought against racism, bigotry, fear, loathing, and outright hatred have dealt with it all their lives. It is part of the deal, and it will never fully go away. But it doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying, and it doesn’t mean we don’t fight back and confront it with determination and strength.