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A Meditation on Martin Luther King Day

January 15, 2017


Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 were dismissed by some of his critics as merely symbolic for African Americans. But there is nothing “mere” about symbols. The power embedded in the word nigger is also symbolic. Burning crosses do not literally raise the black poverty rate, and the Confederate flag does not directly expand the wealth gap.  Ta-Nehisi Coates

Last Monday, as I was stuck in a plane on the ground at Fort Lauderdale airport for hours on end, I was lucky enough to have bought a copy of The Atlantic featuring an essay by the brilliant writer Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled “My President Was Black.”

Coates examines the issue of race in today’s America and what Barack Obama has meant to him and other African-Americans now that his presidency is ending and being replaced with something that feels like its polar opposite. The writer has been critical of the president at times, as he admits. Both his feelings about Obama and the argument of his essay are complex, and he looks at all the racial ugliness of these days. But he concludes as follows:

And I also knew that [Obama] had been responsible for the only time in my life when I felt, as the first lady had once said, proud of my country, and I knew that it was his very lack of countenance, his incredible faith, his improbable trust in his countrymen, that had made that feeling possible. The feeling was that little black boy touching the president’s hair. It was watching Obama on the campaign trail, always expecting the worst and amazed that the worst never happened. It was how I’d felt seeing Barack and Michelle during the inauguration, the car slow-dragging down Pennsylvania Avenue, the crowd cheering, and then the two of them rising up out of the limo, rising up from fear, smiling, waving, defying despair, defying history, defying gravity.

I confess that reading that left me in tears.  If anyone still has the patience for something longer than a tweet or a Facebook post, I commend his essay to you. Read it and mourn what we are losing.

I thought thought about that yesterday, after I saw that Trump had sent out a blast of revenge tweets against congressman John Lewis, one of the true heroes of the civil rights movement. How far have we really come on race in this country?

What do we do when conservatives advance the perverted argument that Barack Obama made racial relations worse?  As if his very election did not unleash a torrent of white backlash. As if he and his exemplary First Lady were not caricatured in the vilest racist ways.  As if Mitch McConnell and the other Republican neo-confederates in congress did not openly conspire to cripple Obama’s presidency from the start regardless of the damage inflicted on the country.  As if Donald Trump did not flog the “birther” lie for years to delegitimize a president who won a majority of the vote in two successive elections.  As if Trump did not make it socially acceptable to be racist again.  Really? It’s Obama’s fault?

Why is it always the responsibility of black people to bring about racial reconciliation? Why do white people feel entitled to indulge these attitudes, while black people are supposed to turn the other cheek.

For that matter, why is there so much fear and hatred toward black people among whites? Logically, it should be the other way around.  Relatively few white people have experienced real racially-based mistreatment at the hands of black people–I know I haven’t.  But I don’t think any black American could say the reverse.

I think the truth is that most white people in this country still don’t really know any black people.  I mean “know” in the sense of socializing together, being in each other’s homes, worshiping together, participating in important life events like weddings, birthday parties, funerals, etc.  Think about it.  Just going to lunch with a bunch of co-workers doesn’t really count.

What that means is that white people consciously or unconciously tend to accept the sort of dysfunctional stereotypes as valid, largely because they don’t know any better.  So when someone like Trump repeats the most derogatory cliches about the “reality” of African-America life, white people nod and silently agree.  In general, I think it’s fair to say that white people know very little about black history or the range of African-American experience and achievement.

I grew up in segregated Texas and through college until I entered the Army, I literally didn’t know any black people.  Then I started meeting these interesting, smart, talented, funny, cool African-Americans who were just fun to be around.  They were all very different, but knowing them changed my life for the better in so many ways.  For one thing, I could dance better than any other white GI in Korea!  And it changed the way I looked at things.

But the way American civilian life is structured, that sort of intermingling still doesn’t happen very naturally, and change–through real–has come very slowly. Even though we may have co-workers of another race, after five o’clock we tend to go our separate ways to homes in neighborhoods that are mostly one color, and we don’t think much about or even much care what goes on there .

Nothing changes one’s thinking like personal experience.  We all are immersed from infancy in attitudes and beliefs that we absorb from family, friends, and neighbors, and many of those attitudes and beliefs can be malignant. If we remain in our own little orbits, the likelihood of adjusting them is much diminished.

I don’t really believe that most white Americans are consciously racist (although some certainly are).  But I do think that most white people are deeply ignorant–sometimes willfully so–about the past and present reality of the black experience in America.  Even though American society has changed tremendously in the last half century, the default setting is still “white”.

Let me say it plainly:  White people have been responsible for creating the institutional racism and white privilege that still pervade American society, and the onus is on us to see that and change it.  It is deeply perverse to blame black Americans for the inequalities in our country.

I don’t mean this as a guilt trip, but as an invitation to open our eyes at what is going on around us.  We white people will probably never experience the impact of racism in the visceral way that so many African-Americans do almost every day.  But–and I include myself in this–we can make  an effort to be aware and try to see things from a different perspective and then apply those lessons to our politics and our daily life.

I may not be “woke” yet, but I’m trying to wake up.

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