Monday, March 31, 2008

1968-2008: Race in America

"Horrors of Ethiopia Get Little Notice"
So read a recent headline in the LA Times, highlighting the selective morality of Americans' views of the horrific reality of racial violence and genocide that dominate the world stage "The teenager awoke under a pile of corpses to a prickling sensation on her face. Ants were biting her eyelids and the inside of her mouth." One can almost visualize Dick Cheney reading this and saying, "So?" If this were happening in our country would we care? Certainly. In Europe or Japan, Israel? Most likely. In the Middle East? If they have oil, perhaps. And therein lies the problem. Poor black people simply are not viewed as worthy of our government's concern and resources and they never have been, whether they are fleeing drought, violence and despair in Darfur, Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda or devastating winds and floodwaters in New Orleans. As the only people legally enslaved in our "free" country, black people have been the recipients of a unique from of hostility since the corrupt backroom deal that ended Reconstruction and led to a century of post-slavery Jim Crow segregation that was characterized by hate crimes--lynchings--counted not in the dozens but the thousands per year and the rise of the KKK, both in the informal organization of Southern rednecks and the much more frightening branch that wore badges, black robes instead of white, and bore titles such as Senator Helms of North Carolina. Indeed, the legacy of separate and unequal segregation has had a much more direct and lasting impact on post-WW II generations than the distant memory of slavery, despite the dismissive attitude of uneducated whites who say, "slavery was over in 1865 so get over it y'all," oblivious to the reality that social, economic, legal, and educational discrimination was legally institutionalized in this country and affected the lives of many grandmothers and grandfathers who are navigating the turbulent racial waters of the 2008 presidential campaign.
Sure, we'll drop some bags of rice in the African desert, hold a few rock concerts, and send some good-natured, well meaning Peace Corps kids, but actually send troops for a prolonged occupation to help confront the logical conclusion of the corruption of European imperialism? Help rebuild one of the great American cities by developing real schools and safe, affordable housing that doesn't sit in a flood plain, well below sea level? That's wishful thinking, my friends. Americans get a TV commercial of starving children with bloated bellies, telling us 26 cents a day can make the kid's village so much better...

"One man came in the name of love..."
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 40 years ago this Friday--April 4th, 1968, the night after he delivered a powerful speech that included the lines "Well I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead...And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land." The courage of a man with a family, young children, who went to bed every night under the fear of death threats surpasses that of any American in the history of this nation. Period. King escaped bomb threats, shotgun blasts into his house, had an American Nazi come up on the stage while he was speaking and repeatedly punch him in the face, yet King never backed down from his steadfast belief in America's potential for justice and righteousness. I have had an interest in King since I was in high school and chose to write my term research paper on King, part of which consisted of sitting in the library watching old videos the librarian dug up for me: they had a profound impact, watching King and others attacked by Bull Connor and his fire hoses and dogs. Living in an all-white, racially ignorant town in Southern Oregon, I nonetheless idolized black blues musicians, many of whom I was lucky to see as they passed through Ashland, the little college town--Albert King, BB King, John Lee Hooker, Robert Cray--my friends and I met them all, loved their music, and immersed ourselves in the power of the blues. It changed my life and the effects continue to reverberate to this day in the way I see myself and the world and the pure joy that music brings to my life. Even as a kid in an all-white school I knew that the musicians I admired were certainly worthy of the same respect as any human being, so I began my quest to explore the history of race relations in America, to understand the context of the music that provided so much meaning for my life. My journey began with King.

Forty years after that infamous day in Memphis, after an ominous spring that led to a summer of blood in the streets after Bobby, Chicago, and the failures of Vietnam, a black man stands poised to win the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. And the old vortex of racial wounds and pure bigotry endures, as the politcial dialog is obsessively focused on Obama's race, despite the fact that he is of mixed race. As in the slave days if one has 1/16 black blood that's enough to be discriminated against, despite Geraldine Ferraro's absurd declaration that is Obama is "lucky" to be a black man. Oh, where would he be if he were white? This much is clear: In the general election Obama would be ahead in every state in the country if he were white, that's where he would be. Political history has nothing to compare to the unpopularity of "the Idiot."

"The Ghost of Tom Joad"
The economy is in 1930s shape, the war is dragging on and now regressing to pre-Surge violence levels, and the Idiot is so hated that he cannot even throw out the first pitch at a baseball game without being booed, as he was last night at the opening of the new Washington Nationals ball park. So while Obama has surely gained some support because he is black, he has--and will continue to--paid a much higher cost than any benefit. Let's face it, the only reason Obama is not a sure thing in November is because much of the country is profoundly(and proudly) racist. That's why Obama will start out behind by 20 states, for no one can make a serious case that it is because of the "issues." That lie is out the window in a year where the Democrats have the Republicans running so scared that dozens of GOP incumbents are quitting rather than face the humiliating defeats that so many endured in the 2006 elections. They know that this fall is going to make '06 look gentle. So, if the Dems are on the country's side on all of the major issues, from the economy to the war, then how could they possibly lose to a fossil such as McCain? McCain, a hapless and pathetic relic of the past, who's beginning to demonstrate just how much he really is George McCain(too ignorant to know the difference between Shia and Sunni?) really offers nothing in the way of pulling W's car out of the ditch. He's the same old, rich white guy who has convinced a bunch of other old, not-so-rich white guys that he cares about them, when in fact, he really does care about them, for they are the ones he needs to pay for the tax cuts for his country club buddies.

"War, What is it good for?"
Obama has the will of the American people on his side, so the effort by Billary and McStain is to radicalize him, to turn him from Martin to Malcolm by playing on the worst instincts of the American people in order to prey upon the same ignorance to lead them to vote for the man they would rather have a beer with instead of the one who may help them keep their pensions and secure an economy that will enable their kids to attend college. Americans want out of this immoral and idiotic war: "This is the first major war in American history where all the additional cost was paid for by borrowing. If the war backers believe that the Iraq war is so essential, then they should be willing to pay for it partly with taxes rather than charging it. One way or another we'll have to pay the bill...The eventual cost of the war will be about $3 trillion. For a family of five, that amounts to a bill of almost $50,000."(NY Times 3-23-08) The war is the biggest con job in the history of the country. I cannot take anyone seriously who supports this fiasco, especially if they or their children are not over there fighting. It's always the chickenhawks who support this nonsense, the ones who ran from Vietnam but are now armchair generals, commanding the troops from their couches, watching Fox news, the ones who talk neocon toughness from the trenches of their computer chairs and their dorm room bunkers: "You hide in your mansion as young people's blood flows out of their bodies and is buried in the mud." They are the worst kind of "Americans." Masters of war, who "fasten the triggers for the others to fire then sit back and watch as the death count gets higher,"(Bob Dylan)they need to be thrown out of the country to make room for the people who want to come here from other countries and do honest work, pay taxes, and become productive Americans, not waste tax dollars killing people who believe a different superstition than a majority of Americans endorse.

"A More Perfect Union"
Obama's speech about race on March 18th was a key moment in the campaign, despite the absurdity of his having to defend himself because of the comments of his pastor. I am more concerned that he has a pastor in the first place than I am that the pastor's views are offensive, for we all know the wonderful legacy of religion in the world. Faith certainly plays a role in many good deeds, but the history of faith is the history of intolerance, violence, genocide etc. I can only hope that Obama's religion, as with most Americans, is more a symbol of propriety than a way of life. Let's face it, people come to this country to get paid and do their own thing, not live in a theocracy. Thank God(pun intended). Anyone who is looking for a truly religious life can probably do better than a country that symbolizes unchecked capitalism. As JD Salinger said way back in the 1950s: " It's very hard to live a spiritual life in America. People think you're a freak if you try to."("Teddy") Thus, the derisive term for a true believer: "Jesus freak." That is the American dilemma: Capitalism is about kicking someone's ass, putting them out of business so you can make more money because you make a product cheaper, pay your workers less, drive up the price of your stock. An economic foundation based on those principles obviously doesn't leave much room for the devout. Just what would Jesus do?
Obama has a huge mountain to climb, battling the Republican "Southern Strategy," GOP code for using white racism to deliver states to dullards like McCain. The GOP is once again testing their belief that the same old racial politics will defeat another Democrat, and that may very well be the case. Time will tell, as we are truly looking into the soul of America this year. Obama seems to be transcending the race card games Clinton is playing, but McCain is already implying that he is un-American, when in fact Obama is uniquely American. Will the same old Willie Horton tactics work? That is the question that will be answered in the coming months. Is this all a mirage or has the country really changed since 1988, let alone 1968?


"The Wright Stuff"
Jeremiah Wright's soundbites are "news" because they provided cover for racist whites to say " See, I knew Obama was just another Black Panther! He's a Farrakhan!" Heaven forbid he speak out for the equal rights of black people...The irony of all this, of course, is that Wright's views are not nearly as disturbing as other equally irrelevant pastors who happen to be white. The real anger, characterized by the relentless loops and "breaking news" on Fox news everytime this pastor has a bowel movement, is because simmering white racism explodes when black people have the audacity to speak the truth about the legacy of racism in this country, the fact that well over 300 years of this country's history, until the mid-1960s was characterized by overt, legal discrimination against black people, so when Wright says the "US of KKK A" he is obviously wrong about the country in 2008 but he is surely right about the country that he grew up in, the one that segregated him at every turn, the one that legally told him, "Know your place."
When Wright speaks of "God damn America," surely the Bible suggests many times that the sin of unprovoked violence and agression(e.g. foreign wars etc.) will be met with the wrath of God. That is not news, and many white pastors have said equally inflammatory things about 9-11, Katrina, AIDS, the SF Earthquake--you name a catastrophe and I will find you a sermon where it is "America's chickens coming home to roost" as Mr. Wright said. My point is not to defend Wright or any of the other equally ignorant white pastors but simply to state the obvious: They are all irrelevant and misguided. Who cares what they have to say? They are essentially paid entertainers, not presidential candidates.
The comments Wright made about drugs and the US drug policy are also not that far off base, for if you remember the US Supreme Court is dealing with the inequity in drug sentencing laws and the fact that people convicted of crack cocaine(mainly blacks, which has a MINIMUM 5 year prison sentence) are serving much longer sentences than those convicted of powder cocaine(mainly whites, which has a MAXIMUM 1 year sentence for an equal amount). These drug laws are clearly racist; indeed, drug laws in general, since the first marijuana law was enacted in Texas to discriminate against Mexicans, have been used to put minorities in jail, for obviously whites use drugs as much as anyone else, but alcohol, by far the most dangerous of all drugs, is especially popular among members of Congress. With around 50% of our prison space being taken up by non-violent drug offenders, many of whom are people of color, is it any wonder that people such as Wright are exasperated with a government who can offer no solutions except to build more prisons and incarcerate more young black males? We are a society in which 26% of all juvenile arrests are black kids, yet 52% of transfers to adult courts are black kids. The message? Let's lock up these black kids and throw away the key. What has been done to address the 9.5% unemployment rate for black males and the fact that black males had higher incomes in 1974 than in 2004? What about the astonishing fact that 11% of black males between the ages of 25-34 are in prison, nearly 10 times the number of white men?(Dyson 109-115) With more black males in prison than in college in the United States in 2008, one would think that the country would take a look at what is going on and try to turn it around, yet we have a government that prefers the more expensive route of prison than the more humane and socially responsible course of treatment. How can someone look at the plight of black communities and not share Wright's outrage if not his rhetoric? So, the only really offensive, Robertson and Falwell level nonsense that Wright expressed was the AIDS as a government plot to wipe out black people stuff. I can only hope that this nonsense was some kind of effort to stir people up so that they'll buy those DVDs and call those 1-800 numbers, for as we all know, these large congregations are all show business.

"Coda"
In the end, Obama was correct in his decision not to "disown" Pastor Wright, for if he would have gone in that direction it would have suggested that he also had no principles or values, that he would disown a friend whose views do not entirely support his own. Throwing Wright under the bus is the type of easy choice that most politicians would make; indeed, it's what we would expect from the Clintons, but Obama is a different kind of politician, despite what the GOP freaks and Drug Limbaugh would have us believe. Real supporters of Obama had their faith renewed, not destroyed, by the Wright controversy, for it showed once again that Obama is clearly superior in the areas that really matter: integrity and judgment. He is clearly a man who does not always seek the most expedient solution, nor is he afraid to speak to Americans as adults rather than boneheads who cannot grasp anything more complex than a bumper sticker. Obama may very well lose this election, especially as he is fighting McCain and the equally slimy Billary machine, but it will be clear that he, if only briefly, raised the level of political discourse in a culture that desperately needed to revisit its values and redefine its objectives in this young century that began in the ominous ashes of the old social and religious grievances that left previous centuries soaked in blood:

"For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism...We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change. That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time." Barack Obama 3-18-2008

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