The Common Good

What! Racism Still in America?

Sojomail - September 17, 2009


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The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for twelve years for something I did not do. From God’s dust I came and to dust I will return, so the Earth shall become my throne.

- The last words of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed for allegedly setting the fire in which his children died, even after multiple expert investigations found no evidence of arson. He insisted upon his innocence and refused an offer to plead guilty in return for a life sentence. (Source: The New Yorker)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

What?! Racism Still in America?

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Here we go again. Some people raise the issue of race (this time about the ways others are talking about or treating the first black U.S. president) and the media goes crazy. “What racism?” many of the pundits cry. “Didn’t we just elect this black guy president?” (Implying “Doesn’t that prove that racism is over in America?”)

So let’s all just take a breath here, as we always need to do when talking about race in the U.S.

A few simple points:

First, on Nov. 4, 2008, the U.S. did what only one other country I know of ever has ever done -- elect a president from a minority race in a country with a different majority race. (Peru is the only other country I can think of to have done that, electing as their president Alberto Fujimori, who is of Asian descent, in a predominantly Hispanic country.) That a still majority white U.S. would elect a black man as head of state was stunning to many -- and, I must admit, to me. Frankly, it made me think that the country was better than I thought it was. That historic accomplishment is a sign of great progress and a hope of better things to come for racial equality and justice in the United States.

Second, the majority of Americans, and even of white Americans -- whether they voted for Obama or not -- seemed to feel proud and positive that the nation had finally reached this amazing milestone. Having elected Barack Obama made most Americans feel good about themselves and about their country on that Jan. 20 Inauguration Day. The new president’s approval rating climbed up to 70% in the week after the inauguration, which obviously meant that even some of those who voted against him were impressed by how he was handling his job at the outset.

Third, there are many people, most of whom voted against Obama, who have basic disagreements with the president on substantive political issues. To disagree with a black president on policy questions does not mean that you are racist. The 20% fewer people who now approve of his job performance did not suddenly turn into racists. And my conservative friends who admire Obama personally but disagree with him politically can hardly be called racists.

But fourth -- and importantly -- there was, and is still, a hard core of racially-motivated white people in this nation who did vote against Obama because he is black, and who virulently oppose him as president because he is black. And that racist core of angry white Americans resides on the extreme political right of U.S. politics. The Far Right in America have never supported racial equality. Their political representatives voted against both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, and most have never repented for it. And, let’s be honest, the loudest voices of right-wing talk radio and cable television appeal directly to that core with subtle and not-so-subtle racial messages, as has the right wing of the Republican Party for many years.

If you were paying attention, you could see signs of that underlying racism at the most heated town meetings this summer. Of course, not everybody who attended, or even was mad about health care or the government at those meetings, is a racist -- most of those people weren’t, but some of them clearly are. There were blatant signs of racism at some of the town meetings and, indeed, many signs that carried overtly racial messages.

I see those racial subtexts in the intensity of the attacks on Obama -- not in the disagreements per se, but in the viciousness of the rhetoric. Racism is often about disrespect, and many African-American citizens are now feeling that the black president in the White House is being disrespected. I also see it in supporters of the new “birthers” movement, who try to stir up doubts about Obama’s citizenship. I see it in the furor over the president speaking to the nation’s schoolchildren about studying and working hard. And, agree with me or not, I saw it in the disrespect shown toward a black president by a white Congressman from the South, whose less than enthusiastic apologies have now turned him into a fund-raising martyr, cheered on by a defiant rebel yell against the man (or is it “boy”?) in the White House.

We have all witnessed or experienced situations where someone has “played the race card” in inappropriate or unfair ways. And racism is not the cause or explanation of every social problem. Nor are legitimately different points of view obvious signs of racism. President Obama has not played the race card, expecting only to be treated as a man -- not a “black man”-- and to be judged as a president and not as an “African-American president.”

But let’s be honest. We all know racism still exists in the U.S. today. We know there is a hard core of our white fellow citizens who simply will not accept their black or brown brothers and sisters -- especially one in the White House. So while we should not call every disagreement an issue of racism, it is time to call out the racism that indeed does still exist -- that wounds our soul as a nation, and that obstructs the promise of the United States.

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