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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Let's not kid ourselves, folks
Posted by Jill | 6:58 AM
I'm all for busting our asses to get Barack Obama elected. We're going to have to put forth effort that no other candidate has ever required, because we have to get past the fact that the United States of America is a racist country. It may not be the unleash-the-hounds, string-em-up racist country that it was before the civil rights era, but it's racist. It's racism that most white Americans don't even know they have and to which they don't admit. It's the flicker of extra resentment when the black co-worker gets the promotion. It's the clutching of the handbag when the black messenger gets into the elevator. It's the surprise one feels when a black family moves into a previously all-white neighborhood. It isn't always the racism of hatred, but it's the racism of ignorance and of "otherness.

I ran into this kind of bigotry at the small Pennsylvania college I attended, when someone actually asked me why, since I'm Jewish, I drive such an old car. The assumption, of course, was that all Jews are wealthy. It's like that Marc Maron bit where he talks about how we say to each other, "I can't believe we got it ALL!" -- and we go down to the basement to count it every day. It's the bigotry of ignorance rather than malice, but it's still bigotry.

Nicholas Kristof writes today in a "sit all day and read it cover-to-cover" New York Times about how the main Republican tactic against Obama is to paint him as "the Other" (emphasis mine):

...the political campaign to transform Mr. Obama into a Muslim is succeeding. The real loser as that happens isn’t just Mr. Obama, but our entire political process.

A Pew Research Center survey released a few days ago found that only half of Americans correctly know that Mr. Obama is a Christian. Meanwhile, 13 percent of registered voters say that he is a Muslim, compared with 12 percent in June and 10 percent in March.

More ominously, a rising share — now 16 percent — say they aren’t sure about his religion because they’ve heard “different things” about it.

When I’ve traveled around the country, particularly to my childhood home in rural Oregon, I’ve been struck by the number of people who ask something like: That Obama — is he really a Christian? Isn’t he a Muslim or something? Didn’t he take his oath of office on the Koran?

In conservative Christian circles and on Christian radio stations, there are even widespread theories that Mr. Obama just may be the Antichrist. Seriously.

John Green, of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, says that about 10 percent of Americans believe we may be in the Book of Revelation’s “end times” and are on the lookout for the Antichrist. A constant barrage of e-mail and broadcasts suggest that Mr. Obama just may be it.


What is happening, I think, is this: religious prejudice is becoming a proxy for racial prejudice. In public at least, it’s not acceptable to express reservations about a candidate’s skin color, so discomfort about race is sublimated into concerns about whether Mr. Obama is sufficiently Christian.

The result is this campaign to “otherize” Mr. Obama. Nobody needs to point out that he is black, but there’s a persistent effort to exaggerate other differences, to de-Americanize him.

The 9/11 attacks and the conflict in the Middle East, combined with Barack Obama's family background, create the perfect environment for American racism to justify itself as "just not wanting a terrorist to be president."

Once this mindset takes hold, there's no getting away from it. I've written time and time again about the friend who's gotten the e-mails and her fear they may be true is stronger and more omnipresent than my intermittent debunkings. People who've adopted this mindset no longer WANT to be set straight. They don't WANT truth, and I think Kristof is right about this -- they're terrified at the very core of their being of a black president, and if they can think of Obama as a Muslim, then refusing to vote for him becomes not just acceptable, but indeed, a patriotic act.

What happens in this election determines what our future is going to be, and the choice is a stark one. On "Real Time" this week, the unusually hysterical (even for him) Andrew Sullivan, in between trying mightily to find something to cling to in conservative economic theory by filibustering Naomi Klein's compelling case that the Wall Street meltdown is Disaster Capitalism in action, made the point that Obama's candidacy is more than being about a black guy who thinks he can be president; that his presence is a sign that the old America, the America where a white majority decides policy and decides how much of the goodies everyone else is going to be allowed to have, is going away:

Transcript of his recmarks, about four minutes into the above video:

SULLIVAN: The truth, Bill, is that we're on the verge of becoming a minority majority country. And you see it more in California and other places, but that's what's happening. And Obama represents a paradigm shift in America's understanding of itself and the world's understanding of America. And there is inevitably going to be a lot of people who are just very scared of that kind of change. And it may be an amorphous fear, but I think it's a real fear. I don't think it's simply a kind of crude racism; I do think it's a kind of cultural insecurity; a terror of the nature of their country changing in their own minds. And it's mainly, of course, the older generation. The younger generation, the under-40s, they're fine with this. They know this is a great thing, this is a fantastic thing, this country is as diverse as it is. The older people are too scared.

WILL.I.AM.: The 19-to-40s...racism is something in history books. And it's up high...at the top, top levels of corporations and politics, when they get reminded that racism is...once was, an American problem. And they're trying to regurgitate something that was...that held Americans back yesterday. I don't feel that racism is an issue between 19 and 38. And when those people register to vote, the polls are going to shift dramatically.

SULLIVAN: Obama is the future. The question for this country is if he's going to be the future in a couple of months, or after a longer period of time.

Both of these points are very valid. I'd like to see more open discussion about this racism that is a function of the fear of change. My friend is 63, and there's probably no turning her around. But there ARE older people who, while they may wonder what "the blacks" are going to do with "their new-found power", recognize that John McCain and Sarah Palin are going to be even more disastrous for them than any black man could be. My parents are in their eighties and both are voting for Obama without question and with enthusiasm. They're not thinking about this paradigm shift, they're thinking about who has all his mental faculties and isn't running with an apocalyptic Dominionist nutball. I'm certain they aren't the only ones.

Yes, the generation that's in its teens and twenties now WILL see this change when they become the power brokers in this country. Whether they do it willfully or if it's just a function of their worldview remains to be seen. But kids today don't see race the way my parents' generation did and even the way we did.

We (and I only speak from my own experience) were arguably even more hyperaware of race than our parents were, because, like every generation coming of age since the early part of the 20th century, we knew that black culture was just cooler than white culture. It's what made jazz popular. It's what drew white New Yorkers to Harlem clubs in the 1920s and 1930s. It's what drew kids to R&B and rock 'n' roll in the 1950s and 1960s. And it's what draws white suburban kids to hip-hop today. When my parents' generation listened to big bands, they didn't think about swing's black roots. But rest assured, when we walked out of school on Martin Luther King's birthday because we thought it should be a national holiday, we were very much aware of how desperately we wanted to be connected with that struggle and how much we wanted to be part of the racial change for which the late 1960's were the excruciating labor pains.

Today, the fruit of that struggle is that kids no longer see race. When you see a group of kids today and some are white and some are black and some are Asian, you know they see each other as friends, not as "my black friend" and "my Asian friend." And that is perhaps the best possible legacy of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. It's a quiet success, and it has no "gratitude" for the way earlier generations fought for this, but it's churlish and narcissistic to expect two kids on skateboards to say "Thank you for making it possible for us to hang out together." That they don't even think about it is where the success lies.

But older Americans do see race. To some, Obama's skin color is a disqualifier. For others, it doesn't matter. But we do see it where the kids don't. And as Kristof writes, choosing to believe that Obama is a Muslim, even if it isn't true, provides an acceptable way of acknowleding that his race does matter to you without having to admit that you're a racist.

And that's what we're up against. The media aren't going to help us here, because they are run by the same people who do see race and they are looking out for the interests of their corporate ownership. State election officials aren't going to help us because they are allowing Republicans to attempt to disenfranchise those likely to vote Democratic -- including those young first-time voters we need so desperately. And there are enough older voters who won't have their votes challenged and who just aren't ready for that kind of change who will pull the lever for John McCain, whether they like him or not.

This is why some of us are obsessed with polls rather than crowd numbers. Crowds are great, but will they all vote? Will they all be ALLOWED to vote?

Let's not kid ourselves. The poll numbers for Obama are improving, but if you factor in a 5-7 point fear factor and disenfranchisement, they aren't good enough. Just as black Americans are often told they have to be twice as good as everyone else to achieve the same level of success, Obama needs twice the lead going into Election Day as a white candidate would have.

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